Updated: May 14
Mumbai/Srinagar: Since the beginning of April 2021, the charge on Darshan Thakkar’s phone has been running out three times a day.
Thakkar manages the Adarsh Hindu Smashan, one of the oldest crematoria in the coastal Gujarat city of Jamnagar, where, Thakkar said, people call either for a slot to cremate loved ones or with a request for beds in the city’s Covid-19 facilities.
“My family has run this crematorium for four generations, and I don’t think we have ever seen so many bodies coming in,” Thakkar said.
The crematorium was functioning beyond its daily capacity of 18-20 bodies, receiving at least 40 since the first week of April. “70% of them were Covid-19 deaths,” added Thakkar.
Despite being the largest crematorium in Jamnagar district, the Adarsh Hindu Smashan has had to construct six additional pyres to handle the load, apart from keeping the crematorium functioning 24x7. In pre-Covid times, it worked when a body came in.
The Gujarat government data do not reflect Thakkar’s cycle of unceasing cremations. Officially, Jamnagar has 4,000 active cases and has recorded an average of 14 Covid deaths every day over the week to 28 April. That is half the number of Covid-protocol cremations at Thakkar's crematorium alone over that period.
The Gujarat government’s database shows that 158 died of Covid-19 in Jamnagar since the first death there in April 2020. Another official at the Adarsh crematorium, refusing to identify himself, said they had cremated 1500 bodies following Covid-19 protocols over 2020.
As India’s health minister Harsh Vardhan claimed on 29 April that India has one of the world’s lowest Covid-19 death rates, evidence collected by Article 14 from crematoria across six cities in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar—Patna, Kanpur, Jamnagar, Morbi, Rajkot and Porbandar—revealed that funerals conducted under Covid-19 protocols ranged from three to even 30 times higher official death tolls.
Across the six cities we investigated, crematoria were working through the night, adding more pyres and hiring more workers to manage the unprecedented rush of bodies since the beginning of April.
The Dangers Of Fudging Death Data
These are quite clearly underestimations. Many infections are not counted, as experts have pointed out (here and here); testing has been falling as cases rise. The official death toll is clearly an undercount, as our investigations—and a flood of others (here, here, here, here and here)—have revealed.
With crematoria full and waiting times stretch into days, bodies have been cremated on pavements, in parking lots and in parks. With videos and stories chronicling these scenes, supporters of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have called journalists “vultures” and pushed the narrative that such reportage spreads “negativity”.
“The dead won’t come back to life,” said Haryana’s BJP chief minister M L Khattar, who argued on 27 April that there was “no point” debating undercounting.
But, as experts said, under-reporting is likely to cause an underestimation of the spread of the disease and hamper the ability of India’s already overwhelmed healthcare system to respond to a possible third wave of infections, which Maharashtra is anticipating.
Murad Banaji, PhD, a senior lecturer in mathematics at Middlesex University in London said underreporting leads to a “data vacuum”, prompting policies without credible data. This, he said, was “extremely dangerous.”
“The problem with underreporting is that you can't understand what's happening, you also can't predict what's going to happen next,” said Banaji. “And you also can't respond.”
What We Found In Six Cities
Article 14 interviewed officials in at least one major cremation or burial ground in each of the six cities we mentioned, spoke to locals and local journalists and found little sign of a coherent government plan or response.
These cities are from BJP-administered states where local and national media have repeatedly found underreporting. In each case, we found a vast gulf between reality and official data:
In Kanpur, the largest city of Uttar Pradesh, government records show 9 and 13 Covid-19 deaths on 23 and 24 April respectively, when crematoria reported seven times that number.
In Porbandar, a coastal district where Mahatma Gandhi was born, we found 30 deaths per day at one crematorium, while the government reported only two deaths in April and six since last year. Crematoria reported they handled double the number of bodies every day in April.
In Gujarat’s Morbi district, known for its flourishing ceramic industry, the trustee of a crematorium said the district was seeing 30-40 deaths a day since early April, while the government claims only 75 deaths have occured due to Covid-19 since last year.
None of this, as we said, is reflected in official data, and while underreporting is evident nationwide (here, here and here), the most egregious examples, appear to be coming in general, as we said, from states governed by the BJP and, in particular, Gujarat.
The Case Of Gujarat And BJP States
Gujarat’s data fudge has attracted national attention because reporters of local media have positioned themselves outside hospitals and crematoria and literally counted bodies to reveal the truth.
On 23 April, the Sandesh newspaper reported that 765 had died in seven Gujarat cities. The official toll was 90. Earlier that month, its reporters, waiting outside the dedicated Covid-wing of the Ahmedabad civil hospital, counted 63 bodies carried out, while the government claimed a death toll of 20 for that day.
Banaji said Gujarat “stands out” in underreporting Covid-19 deaths.
Banaji pointed to the approach that Modi’s BJP government at the Centre adopted towards West Bengal, early in 2020, when it sent an “Inter-Ministerial Central Team” to the state for a fortnight and publicly chastised the government for “discrepancy” in its Covid death figures, after which the state revised its tally from 15 to 57. “This led to a welcome ‘reconciliation’ in West Bengal’s Covid fatality data,” said Banaji.
“But there was certainly no sign of any central agency flying in and chastising the Gujarat government for manipulating death data, or asking it to add the missing deaths back into the official numbers,” said Banaji. “This may have reflected a different approach to NDA (National Democratic Alliance) and non-NDA ruled states. But it also signalled a change of approach, by condoning obvious manipulation of data. Ultimately it led to an environment where weak disease surveillance and data manipulation were rewarded.”
In at least two states, Gujarat and Haryana, BJP chief ministers have defended underreporting. Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani, on 19 April, admitted that the state was not recording all deaths of Covid-19 patients, claiming the state was following guidelines “stipulated by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR)”—not recording the deaths of patients with comorbidities as Covid-19 deaths.
T Sundaraman, former executive director of the National Health Systems Resource Centre, said such an approach, in fact, went against the guidelines, which clearly state that deaths in infected patients with comorbidities must be reported as Covid-19 deaths.
“Under the rules, even if they (deaths) are suspected (to be from Covid-19), it has to be reported, but they don’t do that,” said Sundaraman. “They (Modi government) are trying to maintain a narrative of India’s success in controlling the pandemic.”
Haryana’s Khattar argued the debate about data was pointless. “Our entire focus should be on how the health of people improves and how we can provide relief to them,” said Khattar. “Ab jiski death ho gayi hai, wo wapas hamare shor machane se jivit hota nahi hai. Now, those who have died, they will not come alive because we make a noise about it.”
Rajkot: ‘Bodies Kept Coming’
When he got a call at 8.30 am on 21 April from authorities at Rajkot’s Samras hostel-turned-Covid-care unit that his aunt, Smrutiben, had died, Manan Maniyar rushed there.
When he and his father reached the facility in this central Gujarat city to claim her body, they were made to wait. The hospital told Maniyar it would release her body only when there was space at the city’s crematoria. Maniyar did not think it would take very long.
The wait stretched for 10 hours. The hospital sent over Maniyar’s aunt’s body to the crematorium at 6 pm.
“Even after we reached the crematorium, we realised we were nowhere close to the actual cremation,” said Maniyar. “There were bodies and bodies waiting to be cremated.”
His aunt was cremated after a four-hour wait at the Ramnathpara crematorium.
“In those four hours, I must have seen at least 20-25 Covid-infected bodies being cremated,” said Maniyar, who watched each ambulance ferry up to four bodies at a time. “Vehicles just kept bringing the bodies in.”
Gujarat government data do not reflect the procession of death that Maniyar witnessed. That night, the government bulletin, which supposedly includes all Covid-10 deaths till 5 pm, reported only 12 dead from the disease across Rajkot district.
At the Jay Sardar Yuva Group Mukti Dham, another Rajkot crematorium meant only for Covid-19 bodies, managing trustee Ramesh Vekaria said between 60 to 70 bodies were coming in every day.
“We run our furnaces for 22 hours a day, but we have cremated so many bodies that the plastic from the body bags has melted and gotten stuck in the furnace, reducing the speed of the incineration process,” said Vekaria. The crematorium has had to add six wooden pyres to the existing four wooden pyres and two electric furnaces to cope.
Patna, Kanpur: Govt Data Contradicts Itself
About 1,700 km to the east of Rajkot, at the Bans Ghat electric crematorium in Patna, the official data put out the government—110 deaths between 20-26 April, with 655 Covid-19 deaths since 2020, the worst-hit city in Bihar—are irrelevant.
The crematorium has been receiving between 40 and 50 bodies a day of those who died of Covid-19, said Raj Kumar, the official who oversees cremations.
For instance, on 26 April, Kumar said, the crematorium (there are two more in Patna) saw 44 cremations of Covid-infected bodies, while the state government’s daily bulletin said only 16 had died of the disease citywide. On April 25, 48 bodies came in; official data that day for the city said 23 had died of Covid-19.
In neighbouring UP, the data mismatch in Kanpur, officially the second worst-hit city after Lucknow, is similar. Daniram Pandita, a social worker who cremates unclaimed bodies, said his team had helped cremate 40-50 bodies under Covid-protocols each day since mid-April.
“In the last one week alone, my team of 10 people must have cremated at least 250 bodies,” he told Article 14.
Official data contradict one another.
For instance, on 23 April, when officials reported nine Covid-19 dead, 77 bodies were cremated with Covid-19 protocols, according to a local journalist. The next day, 88 bodies were cremated with Covid-19 protocols, but the government said only 13 people had died of the disease.
Largest Death Variations In Gujarat’s Small Towns
The under-reporting of data is especially glaring in the smaller towns of Gujarat.
For instance, Porbandar (population: 585,000) is, on paper, one of the least-affected districts in the country. According to Gujarat government data, only six have died of Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.
However, at a Porbandar crematorium run by the Manav Sena charitable trust, officials said that had been cremating double that number every day.
“Since the beginning of this month, we are receiving an average of at least 10 Covid bodies each day,” said Anil Karia, a trust official.
Similarly, in Gujarat’s central district of Morbi, Veljibhai Ughareja, who is a trustee of the Morbi-Panjrapole Hindu Crematorium, said they were cremating between 30 and 40 bodies under Covid-19 protocol since early April.
According to government data, Covid-19 claimed no more than 75 since 2020 in Morbi. On 27 April, the government said three people had died from Covid-19 and five the previous day.
Ughareja said their crematorium was cremating about 15 bodies every day, about half under Covid-19 protocols, than official data claimed for the entire district. He argued even these data were “spurious”.
“If you get into each case, you will find most of these non-Covid deaths are also, somewhere, caused by it (the disease), said Ughareja. “Like patients who were discharged from hospitals after being infected with the virus and then, developed post-Covid conditions that led to their death.”
Can’t Hide The Bodies
These findings from six different cities are not isolated and are mirrored nationwide by media who have found rampant fudging and under-reporting:
In Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, the New Indian Express found that 108 people had been cremated with Covid-19 protocols in 24 hours when the government claimed only 8 people had died.
Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh performed the last rites of 141 bodies under Covid-19 protocols in two cremation grounds and three cemeteries between 14 April and 28 April, the Dainik Bhaskar found. The official death count: 13.
In Ghaziabad, UP, crematoria that used to see 15 bodies a day are now seeing nearly 50, the Hindustan Times reported. Unable to cope, pyres are being constructed even on pavements.
Dainik Bhaskar’s Rohtak edition in Haryana reported that the city’s crematoriums were operating through the night and a new crematorium has opened. The paper reported that on 22 April, 23 people were cremated with Covid-19 protocols while government data recorded 11 deaths since 1 April.
In Agra, UP, crematorium workers said that they had “stopped counting the bodies” and that they were not able to cremate all bodies despite running the facility for 20 hours a day, the Telegraph reported. On that day, the UP government said Covid-19 claimed six lives.
In UP’s capital, Lucknow, NDTV reported widespread underreporting. On 13 April, the official toll was 18, but 86 bodies were cremated; on 12 April, the official toll was 21, but 86 bodies were cremated; and on 10 April the toll was 23, but 59 bodies were cremated.
A local caretaker of a Muslim graveyard confirmed Lucknow’s underreporting. “Since 1 April we have buried 53 bodies of those declared dead with COVID and around 600 non-covid bodies,” said Abdul Mateen, the caretaker, on 27 April.
“But even the non-Covid deaths are unusually high,” said Mateen. “We would usually see five to six burials a day. Now we are dealing with about 20.” Lucknow district’s official death toll is UP’s highest: 1,700 since the pandemic began in 2020 and over 150 in the city alone since 20 April.
(Kunal Purohit and Zafar Aafaq are independent journalists based in Mumbai and New Delhi respectively.)