India has been crossing one grim milestone after another this month.
Today (April 15), the country crossed 200,000 new Covid-19 infections a day, for the first time since the pandemic began over a year ago. In the past 24 hours, it also reported 1,038 deaths, taking the total tally up to 173,123.
While India has so far been lauded for keeping Covid-19 fatality rates lower than the rest of the world, a more violent second wave may soon change that. This also leads to the question of whether the government is currently underreporting deaths.
In some states and cities, this may well be true.
In the western state of Gujarat, for instance, regional-language media has been upfront in its criticism of the government, which has been accused of downplaying the Covid-19 situation. The high court in Gujarat has also filed a suo moto case and asked the government to explain how its numbers are grossly different from people’s accounts of the rise in infections and deaths.
For instance, in Gujarat’s merchant town Surat, crematoriums have been working overtime. A metal grill on the furnace at one such crematorium melted because of round-the-clock use, a macabre proof of the sharp rise fatalities.
And yet, the city of Surat has been reporting under 20 deaths a day. “Before the coronavirus outbreak last year, around 20 bodies were cremated at the Kurukshetra Crematorium (in Surat) every day,” Kamlesh Sailor, president of a trust which manages the crematorium, told the Press Trust of India on April 13. “Now, there is a sudden rush of bodies. At present, we are handling about 100 bodies per day.”
According to local news reports, all 16 gas-based crematoriums in the city have been operating at capacity without a break.
This underreporting of deaths is being contested in other states, too.
Covid-19 crematoriums overworked
The central state of Madhya Pradesh reported 37 deaths on April 12. Yet, in its capital city Bhopal alone, there were 37 funerals at one single crematorium the same day, NDTV reported. On some days, the Covid-19 funerals at a single crematorium exceeded the total death toll of the entire state.
Officials at the crematoriums in Bhopal told NDTV that they haven’t seen such long queues of ambulances waiting their turn for funerals since the 1984 gas tragedy in the city. “I am feeling weak, getting tired… too many dead bodies are coming in and it is crowded here. We can’t even take a break for lunch,” Pradeep Kanojia, a worker at the Bhopal crematorium, told NDTV. The crematorium is now also running short of firewood for the pyres.
In Delhi, which has seen its worst-ever surge in Covid-19 cases at 17,282 on April 14, crematorium workers have complained that the local body has not given sufficient protective gear.
The death figures appear to be suppressed in other states, too.
A sudden surge in deaths
In Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow, there has been a consistent rise in the number of Covid-19 funerals. On April 11, nearly 70 bodies came to one Covid-19 crematorium in the city, leading to a long queue and overworked staff. Yet, the state-wide death figure for one of India’s largest states on the day was 72.
“We were handling 7-8 cremations of Covid patients’ bodies on average per day (combined for the two crematoriums). But in the last one week, the number went up to 30 and then 40. Eventually, 69 bodies came for cremation Sunday,” Ajay Dwivedi, Lucknow’s municipal commissioner, told ThePrint.
Now, Lucknow is planning to get five electric crematoriums ready, each of which can handle up to 10 funerals a day, according to ThePrint.
It is also significant to note that these are merely Hindu deaths, tracked through the traditional cremations that are a part of religious last rites. India has a sizeable Muslim and Christian population, and the state’s numbers appear to be underreported even without taking into account those burials.