How Gujarat is undercounting its COVID-19 deaths

Photographs by
29 April 2021
Khan Trust workers bringing bodies to the Ashwini Kumar crematorium in Surat.
Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
Khan Trust workers bringing bodies to the Ashwini Kumar crematorium in Surat.
Shahid Tantray for The Caravan

By late evening on 15 April, 140 bodies of COVID-19 patients had been cremated at the Ashwini Kumar Smashan, the biggest crematorium in Gujarat’s Surat city. The same day, the Gujarat government reported that 41 people had died due to COVID-19 across the state, including Surat’s official toll of 25 deaths. “On an average, every day we are getting around 150 deaths,” the man managing the cremation registry, told me. He asked not to be identified.  

As the second wave of COVID-19 ravages India, the overwhelming surge of bodies at crematoriums and mortuaries has cast doubts on the official mortality data collected and published by several state governments. While reporting on the crisis from Gujarat, The Caravan found large discrepancies in COVID-19 deaths reported by the state government compared to the numbers of bodies cremated according to COVID-19 protocols at cremation grounds in the worst affected cities. Three factors lie behind the mismatch in death data—recording numbers from only hospitals and not crematoriums, counting only people who have died after testing positive for COVID-19, and doctors recording comorbidities and not COVID-19 as causes of death.

The Surat crematorium employee pointed to a pattern of official under-reporting of deaths that had been going on for days. “On 11 April, we had 190 deaths and these are just the COVID-19 deaths,” he said. Officially, Gujarat maintained that 18 COVID-19 deaths occurred in Surat and 54 across the state, on that day. Similarly, for 14 April, the Ashwini Kumar crematorium register showed cremations of 160 bodies of COVID-19 patients, while the entire city’s tally of cremations following COVID-19 protocols was 275. In contrast, official data showed only 74 COVID-19 deaths in the whole of Gujarat. 

In Surat, we tracked the number of COVID-19 bodies cremated at two major crematoriums apart from the Ashwini Kumar Smashan. Jayesh Bhai Umrigar, who maintains records at the Ramnath Ghela crematorium in Umra, told me that they were handling between forty and fifty bodies of COVID-19 casualties every day. “We cremated 42 on 14 April and around 28 until now, today,” Umrigar told me, on the afternoon of 15 April. The Kurukshetra Smashan Bhumi, another crematorium in the Jahangir Pura area, recorded an average of seventy to eighty cremations of COVID-19 casualties every day, from 1 April to 15 April. “At least 70 COVID-19 bodies are being cremated every day in the past week,” Kamlesh Sailor, a trustee of the Kurukshetra crematorium, told me. Sailor said that 73 bodies were cremated as per COVID-19 protocols on 14 April. On 15 April, as The Caravan’s team stood outside the crematorium, at least eight ambulances were parked there, and most of them were carrying two or three bodies each. The ambulance first in line outside the crematorium was carrying six bodies. Within the span of an hour, we saw at least 20 bodies of COVID-19 patients brought to the crematorium.

Smoke coming out from a chimney at the Kurukshetra crematorium in Jahangirpura, Surat.. Shahid Tantray for The Caravan Smoke coming out from a chimney at the Kurukshetra crematorium in Jahangirpura, Surat.. Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
Smoke coming out from a chimney at the Kurukshetra crematorium in Jahangirpura, Surat.
Shahid Tantray for The Caravan

Chahat Rana is a reporting fellow at The Caravan. 

Keywords: COVID-19 coronavirus Gujarat Surat Ahmedabad Vijay Rupani Narendra Modi
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