India is grappling with a brutal new wave of the coronavirus pandemic. It counted 2,75,196 new infections on April 18 and 1,620 deaths. Alarming as these numbers are, they are widely suspected to be an undercount.
Indeed, news reports in the past week have revealed that several states are reporting fewer deaths than are taking place. One such state is Madhya Pradesh.
To check if the state is really undercounting Covid deaths, we visited the two main cremation grounds in the capital Bhopal and the largest graveyard this past week. The city has at least 10 cremation grounds and 12 large and small graveyards.
From records maintained by caretakers of the crematoriums and the graveyard we visited and conversations with them, it is clear that Madhya Pradesh isn’t reporting the actual death toll. Far from it.
The Shivraj Chouhan government reported 53 Covid deaths throughout the state on April 15; 51 on April 14; 40 on April 13; 37 on 12. The corresponding figures for Bhopal alone are eight, four, five, and three.
However, 88 bodies were burned on April 15 at Bhadbhada Vishram Ghat alone. And 72 of them had died of Covid, said Arun Choudhary, 60, head of the management committee of the city’s largest cremation ground. The previous three days, they had burned, respectively, 69, 58 and 54 bodies, most of them with Covid.
“This time last year, during the lockdown, we received 10 bodies a day on average. Before Covid, we did about 250 cremations a month,” he added.
His numbers were a mismatch with the government’s, we told Choudhary. “We have nothing to do with the government’s records,” he replied. “But the Crime Branch and CID people take daily records from us.”
Choudhary refused to show us their cremation records, however, claiming that he was not authorised to do so.
Lad Singh, 49, a worker at the cremation ground, could not confirm if the numbers provided by Choudhary were exact, but maintained that cremations had increased manifold. “My phone starts ringing at 6 in the morning. Someone is coming to collect the remains, someone needs the certificate. Some say they are coming from Chhindwara, from Sagar or Betul, they claim they are coming from 500 km away so they can’t return for the death certificate. So, I have to make 50, even 100 certificates every day and keep track of them,” he said. “I end up working till 11 pm, midnight. My life is in God’s hands now.”
Subhash Nagar Vishram Ghat had received 35 bodies until 4 pm on April 15, at least 17 with Covid, said the manager Somraj Sukhwani. They had cremated 26 Covid bodies on April 14, 28 Covid on April 13, 14 on April 12. “In all since April 8, we have cremated 248 bodies, including 122 Covid bodies,” he added.
Sukhwani, 55, said he hasn’t seen so many cremations in a few days since the which killed some 15,000 people.
“Last year, we cremated 10 Covid bodies a day on average. Sometimes there would be up to 20 bodies if there was an accident, say, but the average was way below what it’s now,” he said.
Today, they are running out of platforms to build pyres, called chita sthal, Sukhwani said. “Traditionally cremation is not done at night. But the hospital is not keeping the body now and the family doesn’t want to take it home either. So many corpses can’t be stored in mortuaries. So, now cremations are being done at night as well. We have 36 chita sthal but we have to do 45-48 cremations a day. So, we are cremating the rest of the bodies elsewhere in the compound.”
A record of cremations at Subhash Nagar Vishram Ghat. Figures in red are Covid deaths.
The Jhada graveyard in Jahangirabad is Bhopal’s largest. It’s been sealed off by the police, owing to the “Covid curfew”, a policeman manning one of the barricades claimed. They wouldn’t let us in, so we spoke with its caretaker, Rehan Ahmed, over the phone. “We are getting 10-12 bodies a day,” he said. “We used to get 40 to 50 bodies a month before the pandemic. The number has increased manifold.”
On April 15, until 4.30 pm, they had received 15 bodies, nine of them with Covid. The previous three days, they had buried, respectively, seven, six and six bodies that had been certified as Covid deaths.
The graveyard is filling up fast, Rehan said. “We wrote to the collector last year when we began running out of space, but nothing happened,” he added. “Ten days ago, as the number of bodies started to increase, I asked for more soil to be poured over the graveyard. There was no reply. Today, I wrote another letter insisting that if the administration sends a body here they should deliver soil with it.”
The collector, Avinash Lavania, didn’t respond to our calls for comment about the discrepancies in Covid death figures and Rehan’s complaint. The state’s health minister, Prabhuram Choudhary, wasn’t immediately available to take questions either. If we get a response from either, we will update the report.
The medical education minister, Vishwas Sarang, repeated the statement that the BJP government’s functionaries have been giving to the press. “According to Covid protocol, the body of a person suspected to have Covid is cremated the same way as a person confirmed to have died of Covid. This is why you see a difference in numbers. We are not hiding anything, nor do we have any such intention.” He wouldn’t elaborate further.
Pictures by Shardool Katyayan.