The Government of India is at loggerheads with an international organisation again. The bone of contention this time is the Covid-19 mortality data released by the World Health Organization (WHO), which says that 4.7 million people died in India between March 2020 and December 2021. This figure is 10 times higher than the official numbers put out by the government.
As expected, the blame-game has begun in India between the government and the opposition. The government has rejected the WHO claim while questioning its methodology. A statement issued by the Union health ministry said: “Despite India’s objection to the process, methodology and outcome of this modelling exercise, the WHO has released the excess mortality estimates without adequately addressing India’s concerns.”
A report published in The New York Times last week had already flagged India’s objection to the WHO report that had the material of creating trouble for the BJP-led Union government in the face of an opposition that has constantly targeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strategy to deal with Covid-19.
It is another matter that despite opposition’s attempt to corner the Union government on the issue of mishandling of Covid-related deaths in India, the latter registered a thumping victory in four out of five states recently which went to polls, allowing the BJP to claim that the opposition’s criticism of the Modi government was pure politics. In fact, the government and its ruling party have lauded themselves for managing the Covid-19 disaster much better than all how the advanced countries, including the US, have done it by citing the least per capita Covid-related deaths.
When Data Is Not Acceptable
The Centre, especially under Modi, has often taken a tough stance against international institutions whenever a report has questioned India’s performance on various human development indicators. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had earlier dismissed the World Inequality Report, which is published by the World Inequality Lab, as flawed, raising questions on its methodology. Speaking in the Rajya Sabha, she said: “The World Inequality Report terming India as ‘poor and very unequal country’ is flawed, based on questionable methodology.”
The report stated that India was a poor and very unequal country, with the top one per cent of the population holding more than one-fifth of the total national income in 2021. People at the bottom half held just 13 per cent of income, according to the report.
Another report that did not go down well with the Union government was the Global Hunger Index that ranked India below its poorer neighbours, like Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.
When Data Is Acceptable
There are times when the methodology of international organisations is not just accepted but flaunted as well. The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking was one such report that was always celebrated by the current government till it was called off by the World Bank itself. Between 2015 and 2019, India improved its ease of doing business ranking from 142 to 63, making the government go ballistic about its achievements. It is another matter that the methodology of the World Bank came under scanner for the data published in 2018 and 2020, that gave unnecessary advantage to certain nations, including China, Saudi Arabia among others.
Similarly, Modi has also lauded India’s performance in the Global Innovation Index ranking, which has improved from 81 in 2015 to 46 in 2022. This ranking enabled the government to get into a self-celebratory mode by claiming that its emphasis in creating a start-up ecosystem in the country that has given boost to India’s image as the tech-hub in the world, making it competitive with the US and China in fields like fintech, space-tech and Web3.
The Politics And Poverty Of Data
The politics over data is not new. India is traditionally seen to be poor with data collection, and the WHO data of excess Covid-19 deaths relies on the mathematical modelling for India in the absence of All-Cause Mortality (ACM) data at the national level. Various other countries that collect ACM data have not been accorded such abnormally high number of Covid-19-related deaths by the WHO. According to the global health body, India has provided data from up to 17 states (out of 26) over the pandemic period, “but this number varies by month”.
Clearly, this has not gone down well with the government, which believes that India has a robust system of recording deaths. “We have a robust system of CRS (Civil Registration System) and we released that report yesterday. We have an actual count of deaths for 2020. As per law and the timeline, the 2021 numbers will also come up,” Niti Aayog member Dr V.K. Paul told a news agency after the release of the WHO report. Taking on the WHO, he asserted, “We want … [the WHO] to have used these numbers. Unfortunately, in spite of our emphatic writing ... [and] communication at the ministerial level, … [the WHO has] chosen to use the numbers that are based on modelling and assumptions.”
Paul’s statement reveals the political importance of Covid-19 deaths for governments across the world. Former US president Donald Trump lost the election in 2021 due to the perception of mishandling of Covid-19 during his term. Many governments across the world have faced challenges in controlling the anti-incumbency caused due to mayhem caused by the pandemic over the last two years. While the Modi government has managed to control the narrative in its favour over a period of time, it is still vulnerable to such reports that challenge the government’s claim over managing the pandemic by throwing drastically higher numbers.
Statistically, it needs to be highlighted that the WHO has, indeed, relied on a mathematical model that has the potential to overstate the number of deaths. It also needs to be noted that the WHO has accepted in the report that its extrapolation of Covid-19 deaths relies on news reports by journalists who obtained information through Right to Information mechanism in India.
The result of this way of calculating a mortality figure can be acceptable to governments when its outcome does not have a political cost. In this case, one can assume what is at stake for the Modi government, which goes an extra mile to be one up in the perception game. For this reason, the real number of Covid-19 deaths in any country may never be known fully. No institution or state was ready to deal with the pandemic. They are the least ready to deal with the real number of deaths that it has caused.