Fact Check: The lies and misdirections of the Modi government during the coronavirus lockdown

The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi delivering the inaugural address at the 125th Annual Session of Confederation of Indian Industries through video conference, in New Delhi on 2 June. The Modi administration frequently misdirected the public and lied to justify the world’s harshest lockdown and claim it was a success. PIB
13 June, 2020

Following 24 March, when the central government announced the first of four nationwide lockdowns to restrict the spread of the novel coronavirus, representatives and ministers of the government have consistently misdirected the public with half-truths and outright lies to justify their policies and stave away criticism.

Many of the claims that officials made were demonstrably untrue in the face of ground reports that showed severe hunger and starvation in several parts of the country, particular among migrant workers. A large number of these lies seemed to be used to justify the nationwide lockdown and the mismanagement of repatriating migrant workers, ignoring the immeasurable loss of life and suffering inflicted on India’s poorest.

Officials also attempted to claim success in curbing the spread of the virus ignoring the continued threat the pandemic poses to the population. Below is a list of the most egregious misdirections and lies by government officials in the past three months.

No new cases of COVID-19 after 16 May

During a press briefing on 24 April, Vinod Paul, a member of the NITI Aayog, and chairperson of the national task force for COVID-19, presented a slide that ambitiously claimed that the number of new coronavirus cases would drop to about a thousand by 10 May, and that India would see no new cases after 16 May. The national task force on COVID-19, comprising 21 leading scientists from across the country, was formed to advise the Narendra Modi government on its response to the pandemic. Soon after the briefing, the press information bureau tweeted the mathematical model, noting that Paul had said, “No need to fear of hidden spike in #COVID cases, the disease is in control.” Paul’s models predicted that the cases would peak at just above 1500 cases a day. Not only was this claim rubbished by several members of another empowered group created by the central government to advise the COVID-19 response, the continued rise in cases has proved this false. On May 16, India’s cases had started growing at a rate of 5000 a day, and reached 10,000 by the 12 June.

India does not have community transmission of COVID-19

On 11 May, Lav Aggarwal, the joint health secretary at the health ministry said, “Therefore it is important for us to maintain at this stage only and scale up containment efforts and ensure that we don’t go at the community transmission stage.” Representatives of the government have frequently either denied that India has community transmission or avoided the question. Previously on 14 March, Balram Bhargava, the director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, the nodal agency framing India’s COVID-19 response, told the Economic Times, “If we manage 30 days, if community transmission doesn’t happen in the next 30 days, we may be at a good wicket.” This indicated that India did not already have community transmission. On 2 June, when asked about community transmission in a press conference about the pandemic Nivedita Gupta, a senior scientist at the ICMR, dodged the question and said, “Instead of using the word community transmission, it is important to understand the extent of spread of the disease and where do we stand in comparison with other countries.” As recently as 12 June, Bhargava reiterated that they believed that India had no community transmission of COVID-19.

The Indian government’s denial of community transmission is due to their own invented definition of the term. In the situation reports of the World Health Organisation cases are classified into only two categories, “imported cases only” and “local transmission.” The WHO does not categorise any of the epicentres of the virus, including Italy and Spain, as showing “community transmission,” because these come under its classification of local transmission. But by creating a category of community transmission, and denying that COVID-19 in India has reached that stage, the central government has effectively contradicted the WHO’s classification of the scale of the infection in the country.

In late March, when the Chhattisgarh government adopted a liberal testing policy, they found evidence of both local transmission and community transmission. As early as 12 March, WHO had already categorised India as having local transmission. A study by the Indian Journal of Public Health, an academic journal, also pointed out that community transmission was well in place before the lockdown in Mumbai. A joint statement issued by Indian Public Health Association, Indian Association of Preventive and Social Medicine and Indian Association of Epidemiologists—associations dealing with public health—on 25 May, said, “It is unrealistic to expect that COVID-19 pandemic can be eliminated at this stage given that community transmission is already well-established across large sections or sub-populations in the country.” The frequent denial of community transmission by the India government is now absurd when the country has more than 3 lakh confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus.

Ayurveda and homeopathic remedies can help prevent COVID-19

On 29 January, the ministry of AYUSH—Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy—issued a statement prescribing ayurvedic, Unani and homeopathic remedies for the prevention of COVID-19 and for dealing with its symptoms. Some of the tips in the statement included boiling and drinking tulsi leaves and pouring two drops of sesame oil into your nostrils every morning. On 21 April, the AYUSH ministry also initiated trials to explore the possibility of integrating homeopathy into the government’s official protocol. In an interview with LiveMint, the online edition of The Mint newspaper, Anil Khurana, the director general of the Central Council for Research in Homoeopathy, an autonomous research body under the AYUSH ministry, said that they had conducted trials in two different hospitals. He added that while they were testing on asymptomatic patients, they were going to start testing on patients with more severe symptoms. Alarmingly, several state governments have also begun the prescription of ayurvedic treatments or preventives for the novel coronavirus, including Kerala, Telangana, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Odisha.

There has not yet been any legitimate peer-reviewed study into whether these measures aid in any way in the prevention of COVID-19. The Australian government conducted a detailed study of 225 research papers and stated that there was no reliable evidence of homeopathy’s efficacy. The Spanish government has considered outright banning homeopathy, recognising that claiming it has curative or preventive properties is false advertising. The British Medical Association in 2010 banned the prescription of homeopathic remedies in their national health service and termed homeopathy a pseudoscience.

With the lockdown India has been able to avert the harm of COVID-19

On 14 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an address to the nation about the extension of the nationwide lockdown, said, “India’s fight against the corona global pandemic is moving ahead with great strength and steadfastness. It is only because of your restraint, penance and sacrifice that, India has so far been able to avert the harm caused by corona to a large extent.” Modi and other representatives of the government have constantly claimed that the lockdown was a success in the prevention of the spread of the novel coronavirus. On 22 May, Vinod Paul, a member of the NITI Aayog and chairperson of the national task force for COVID-19, told Indian Express, “the lockdown decision by the Prime Minister was early and timely and the way the country effectively implemented it, is an international example.” He went on to say, “After April 4 there is clear slowing of the growth and then it settled at 5.5%. This shows that the country stopped the progression of the virus… Overall we averted between 14-29 lakh cases and 37,000-71,000 deaths.”

However, the success of the lockdown in the prevention of the spread of COVID-19 is extremely doubtful. In the announcement of three phases of the lockdown, the administration did not consult the government’s own scientific task force about the efficacy of the lockdown. Several members of the task force said that the lockdown had failed to achieve its purpose due to the government’s failure to take crucial parallel measures, such as developing India’s testing capacity and medical infrastructure. Despite placing a 1.3 billion population under lockdown, India has recorded 3 lakh confirmed cases. Members of the task force said that the lockdowns failed because it was based on an unscientific understanding and was more geared towards theatrics.

Thejesh GN, the chairman of Datameet, a community of data science experts, created a database to record the number of deaths due to the lockdown, titled, “COVID-19 Non-viral deaths”. According to the tracker, there were 742 non-viral deaths, including 178 as a direct consequence of starvation and exhaustion. These deaths occurred as a direct consequence of the lockdown.

We have gone the entire three months without a single person starving

On 14 May, in his keynote address to a global online conference organised by the School of Management of Bennet University, a part of the Times group, Piyush Goyal, the union minister of railways and commerce, said, “We have gone through the entire three months without a single person starving. That’s not just the effort of centre or state governments. It is the effort of 130 crore Indians.” Numerous reports from across the country have categorical pointed to starvation due to failures in the ration distribution system, lack of access to shops and the inability to harvest crops.

Ground reports from both Jharkhand and Rajasthan reported cases of starvation and starvation deaths during the first few weeks of the lockdown. Migrant labourers fleeing Delhi during the first phase of the nationwide lockdown told reporters that they had had no access to food. Community organisations working to feed migrant workers in the national capital also spoke about their inability to feed the tens of thousands of migrant workers who had no access to food. Reports from rural Uttar Pradesh also showed families that were forced to have only one meal a day for the lack of rations and money.

According to the COVID-19 Non-viral deaths tracker, 23 starvation deaths were reported before 14 May. In fact, many migrants reported not having access to food in trains which run under Goyal’s own ministry. Eighty deaths have been reported on Shramik Special trains between 9 May and 27 May, many of which could be attributed to hunger.

Food and drinking water are provided by railways free of cost

Referring to migrant workers on trains, on 28 May, Tushar Mehta, the solicitor general of India, told the Supreme Court, “Food and drinking water are provided by railways free of cost. The first meal is provided by the state government. Once the train starts, the food is provided by the railway ministry. If the journey is short there is one meal, if it long then two meals.”

There have been several reports of migrant workers being given no more than one meal even for long journeys. Sahil Murli Menghani, an independent reporter, noted in a tweet that while travelling on a Shramik Special train migrant workers had not been given food for over 78 hours and had to fend for themselves by cooking corn in a field where the train had stopped. Poor planning by the railway ministry meant that Shramik special trains often took 12 hours more than they usually do to reach their destination, and even reached the wrong destinations at times, leading to migrant workers being stuck without food, water or clean toilets.

Several students from Aligarh Muslim University who were on Shramik Special trains had also made desperate pleas for food and water. Several migrant workers protested in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar after being denied food and water for three or four days in Shramik Special trains. Deaths that may have occurred due to hunger and thirst have also been reported on Shramik Special trains.

Deaths in trains were due to pre-existing medical conditions

Referring to the Shramik special trains, in a statement released on 29 May the ministry of railways said, “It has been observed that some people who are availing this service have pre-existing medical conditions which aggravate the risk they face during the COVID-19 pandemic. A few unfortunate cases of deaths related to pre-existing medical conditions while travelling have happened.”

Before 27 May, the Hindustan Times reported 80 deaths from Shramik Special trains with the age of the deceased ranging from one month old to 85 years. The railway protection force, a government security force that polices railway property, did not make any details available for deaths between 1 May and 8 May. After 8 May data is available and was collated by the Hindustan Times report. A zonal railway officer quoted by the Hindustan times said, “Heat, exhaustion and thirst are among the primary issues faced by the passengers on board these trains. We have seen several of such cases over the past month.” The widespread lack of food and water was reported in several Shramik Special trains.

The fact-checking website AltNews spoke to Mohammad Pintu the father of a four-year-old child who died on a Shramik Special train while travelling from Delhi to Patna. Mohammad said that they all underwent health check-ups before boarding the train on 27 May, and had no pre-existing conditions. He said they were given food and water only once during the journey following which the child died.

A troubling video of a toddler trying to wake up Arvina Khatoon, his dead mother, on 27 May, became viral on social media. The fact-checking department of the government run press information bureau claimed that Arvina was suffering from an illness when she boarded the train, and even claimed they had corroborated this information with her family. AltNews spoke to Arvina’s sister who said that she was not sick when she boarded the train and had even undergone a medical check-up. Arvina’s sister also added the Arvina lacked water during the journey. AltNews also spoke to Sylvia Karpagam, a community health expert based in Bengaluru, who said, “On top of food deprivation, you have dehydration due to the long journeys in hot weather. If hydration was ensured, this could have prevented many of the deaths. Some already sick and starving patients could still have been saved if they had good access to water. Dehydration is more quickly deadly that just starvation.”

An article in the Telegraph also reported the death of a one-month-old infant who died of heat and dehydration on a Shramik Special train. However, on the same day as the railway ministry’s statement, VK Yadav, the railway board chairman said, “In case of deaths, the local zones investigate the reason and without an investigation, there are allegations that they died of hunger when there was no shortage of food.” It is unclear how without having conducted investigations the railway ministry could conclude that deaths occurred due to pre-existing medical conditions and not hunger which is what migrant workers in trains complained of.

There are no migrants on the roads

On 31 March, Tushar Mehta, the solicitor general of India, told the Supreme Court, “I have instructions to state that no one is now on the road. Anyone who was outside has been taken to the available shelters.”

This was patently untrue. Migrant workers were reportedly walking back to their villages on 31 March as well as the weeks that followed, from across the country. The same day the Indian Express carried a story interviewing a group of migrant workers walking from Noida to Palamu in Jharkhand. The same story highlighted another group of migrant workers being questioned by the police in Mathura as they walk to Samastipur in Bihar. The report also mentioned groups of migrant workers being stopped in Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. A major exodus of migrant workers walking home occurred almost exactly on the day Tushar Mehta lied to the Supreme Court because the government which had previously stated that trains would not run till 31 March, announced that passengers trains would be suspended till 14 April.

The railways is paying 85 percent, and state governments are paying 15 percent of the fare for migrant workers

On 4 May, Lav Aggarwal, the joint secretary at the health ministry said, “Based on the request given from states for particular cases, permission was given to run special trains. Be it government of India or the railways, we have not talked about charging from workers. Eighty-five per cent of the transportation cost is borne by the Railways, while states have to bear 15 percent of the cost.”

While this is not technically incorrect, it is a complete misdirection and a facetious argument. A reader would assume that this means that the ticket price of migrant workers had been entirely waived with the railway ministry paying 85 percent of the ticket price and state government paying the rest. A fact check by the news website The Wire, showed that migrant workers still had to pay their entire ticket fares for Shramik Special trains. Aggarwal had calculated the cost of the railway ministry by the amount of money the railways would lose as compared to a regular two-way journey of each train and added the rate the railways regularly subsidised trains by.

The standard railway subsidy for sleeper-class passengers is 47 percent. Aggarwal added the additional cost of Shramik Special trains carrying only 1,200 people due to social distancing protocols and the cost of trains returning empty to argue that the railway ministry is subsidising trains for migrants by 85 percent. States also do not have to pay the remaining 15 percent, which is the entire ticket price, from their state exchequer and often are collecting the entire amount from migrant workers before paying it to the railway ministry, as was reported in Gujarat.

An internal letter by the ministry of railways also directed the local and state governments to collect the costs from migrant workers and reimburse the centre. Several state government representatives including Anil Deshmukh, the home minister of Maharashtra, have pointed out that states which do not want to burden migrant workers have to pay their entire ticket costs without any help from the central government. The Hindu also reported that the fares of Shramik Special trains include an additional 50 rupees more than the regular cost of sleeper tickets for all journeys, all of which is paid for by stranded migrant workers.

The government is announcing a 20 lakh crore package for COVID relief

On 13 May, Prime Minister Modi said, “The economic package that is being announced today, if added, comes to around Rs 20 lakh crores. This package is about ten percent of India’s GDP. With this various sections of the country and those linked to economic system will get support and strength of 20 lakh crore rupees.”

The news website Huffington Post in an article pointed out several fallacies within the economic package that was announced by Modi and Nirmala Sitharaman, the union finance minister. Several of the schemes announced as part of the package were already in the pipeline before the COVID-19 pandemic or were too small in real terms to create any real stimulus to the economic situation.

For instance, the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana, a scheme meant for fisheries and to boost the fishing value chain was in the pipeline for a significant amount of time, after being announced in July 2019. How it constitutes coronavirus relief in unclear. The National Animal Disease Control Program, valued at Rs 13,343 crore was also approved by the cabinet in May 2019 and launched by Modi in September. The aim of the scheme is to vaccinate cattle, buffaloes, sheep and pigs.

While Sitharaman also announced funding of Rs 3 lakh crores to guarantee loans from the National Credit Guarantee Trustee Company Limited, it is hard to call it a stimulus package since it consists primarily of loans. Further, there was no fiscal spending to tide over the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, that were shuttered in the lockdown. Subash Garg, a former union finance secretary told Huffington Post that only forty five to fifty lakh out of the 8 crore MSMEs have credit with the banks. Garg said that he refuses to “call it a stimulus package because they don’t need stimuli to grow further, they need support to survive and revive. The package that has come is unfortunately not a support package.” 

Additionally, Sitharaman announced an increase in wages for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme by 20 rupees. However, this increase is part of a routine revision that is done by the chief labour commissioner twice every year. Including this in any total of the economic stimulus package is facetious.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sahil Murli Menghani is a special correspondent for CNN-News18. Menghani was previously a special correspondent but now is an independent reporter. The Caravan regrets the error.