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Saturday, May 21, 2022

Counting death, poverty and taxes

P Chidambaram writes: There were 6,64,369 villages in India in 2019. Assuming that 20% of these were too remote and therefore not affected by the pandemic, that leaves over 5,00,000 villages. Even if, two persons in every village had died due to Covid (a gross underestimate), that will out deaths at 10,00,000.

Written by P Chidambaram |
Updated: April 24, 2022 9:15:15 am
Owing to the virus, people died all over India. Most certainly, not all of them were diagnosed or treated; and not all of them died in hospitals. (File Photo)

In normal life, we keep a count of time; we count money; we count games, runs and goals; we count successes and failures; we count votes and seats, and so on.

Also written by P Chidambaram |Hate speech thrives and divides

There is no shame in counting accurately — except, it seems, in counting the dead. The coronavirus pandemic caused death every where. How many died because they were infected could be known accurately only if every sick person had been traced, tested and treated when alive or the body had been subjected to a post-mortem. That was possible in countries with a relatively small population or with advanced healthcare facilities. India in 2020 did not have either advantage.

How Many Deaths?

Owing to the virus, people died all over India. Most certainly, not all of them were diagnosed or treated; and not all of them died in hospitals. We found that bodies were thrown into rivers or dumped on river banks. The bottom line was that there was no accurate count of the dead. Everybody accepted that fact — except the government which maintains that the number of persons who had died owing to the virus (as on the morning of April 22, 2022) was 5,22,065.

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Study after study has debunked that number. The first expose was done in Gujarat. By collating the number of death certificates issued by government authorities, a newspaper proved that more people had died in the pandemic year(s) than in the pre-pandemic years and the difference could be attributed only to the virus. The ‘difference’ was larger than the official number of pandemic-related deaths. When the exercise was done in municipalities in other states — by comparing the number of death certificates or number of cremations — it was proved again and again that more people had died due to the pandemic than the government was willing to admit.

Science and Commonsense

At this point, science stepped in. In a study published in January 2022 in Science, it was estimated that the number of pandemic-related deaths in India was over 30,00,000. A second study published in April in Lancet estimated the number as 40,00,000. A third, year-long study sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), yet unpublished, has also put the number at 40,00,000.  (Globally, the number was estimated to be 90,00,000.)

If the number of pandemic-related deaths was between 30,00,000 and 40,00,000, the government of India can be accused of failure on a number of grounds. Despite six years at the Centre, and for many more years in the states, the BJP governments failed to invest adequately in healthcare. Despite early warnings, the government was totally unprepared to face the health disaster. Its decisions on banning travel, lockdown, creating temporary healthcare facilities, placing orders for the vaccines, etc. were hopelessly delayed.

Be that as it may, what is alarming is the unwillingness of the government to admit that the true number of pandemic-related deaths is 6-8 times more than the official number. Instead, the government is picking holes in the studies. The Ministry of Health has objected to the ‘methodology’ adopted by the WHO study that involved experts from around the world!

Leave the methodology aside, let’s go by common sense. There were 6,64,369 villages in India in 2019. Assuming that 20 per cent of these villages were too remote and therefore not affected by the pandemic (a wrong assumption), that leaves over 5,00,000 villages. Even if, on average, two persons in every village had died due to the virus (a gross underestimate), that will make the number 10,00,000. Add the number who had died in towns and cities (urban population is 35 per cent), we will arrive at a total of 15,00,000.

Poverty and Taxes

Another count has also kicked up a controversy, though the government is pleased with the outcome. A working paper of the World Bank said that extreme poverty in India declined by 12.3 per cent from 22.5 per cent (2011) to 10.2 per cent (2019), with rural areas showing a better result (decline of 14.7 per cent). I agree that poverty has declined, but there are many caveats. Firstly, the study stops in 2019 and does not take into account the devastation caused by the pandemic. Secondly, all the indicators since March 2020 have pointed downward and Azim Premji University has estimated that 23 crore people were, since 2020, pushed into poverty. Hence, the presumed gains made until 2019 have been wiped out. Thirdly, the negatives have not yet been overcome: the bulk of the lost jobs have not come back, the increase in household debt has not been reversed and new job opportunities are still scarce.

Yet another count is controversial. In Washington, the Finance Minister claimed that “Our revenue to rescue the economy was not going to come from taxing people. No ‘Covid tax’ was levied on anybody”. That’s a tall claim, considering that the Central government had collected during 2020-21 and 2021-22 through fuel taxes alone Rs 8,16,126 crore and through other contributions to the exchequer from oil companies (thanks to super profits) Rs 72,531 crore.

There is no shame in admitting that Covid deaths are understated, the reduction in poverty is overstated and crippling taxation is not stated at all.

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