Count death, poverty and taxes

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

There’s no shame in counting accurately – except, it seems, in counting the dead. The coronavirus pandemic has claimed lives everywhere. The number of people who died because they were infected could only be accurately known if each sick person had been found, tested and treated while alive or if the body had been subjected to an autopsy. This was possible in countries with relatively small populations or advanced health facilities. India in 2020 had no advantage.

How many deaths?

Due to the virus, people have died all over India. Most certainly, not all have been diagnosed or treated; and not all died in hospitals. We discovered that bodies had been dumped in the rivers or dumped on the banks. The main thing was that there was no precise count of the dead. Everyone has accepted this fact – except the government which maintains that the number of people who died from the virus (as of the morning of April 22, 2022) was 522,065.

Study after study has debunked this number. The first presentation was made in Gujarat. By collating the number of death certificates issued by government authorities, a newspaper proved that more people died in the pandemic year(s) than in the pre-pandemic years and that the difference could only be attributed to the virus. The “difference” was larger than the official number of pandemic-related deaths. When the exercise was carried out in municipalities in other states – comparing the number of death certificates or the number of cremations – it was proven time and time again that more people had died from the pandemic than the government wasn’t ready to admit it.

science and common sense

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 a third year-long study sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), as yet unpublished, also put the number at 40,000,000.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

If the number of pandemic-related deaths were between 30,00,000 and 40,00,000, the Indian government can be blamed for failure on a number of grounds. Despite six years at the Center, and for many more years in the states, BJP governments have failed to invest adequately in health care. Despite early warnings, the government was totally unprepared to deal with the health catastrophe. Its decisions to ban travel, containment, create temporary health facilities, order vaccines, etc. have been hopelessly delayed.

Either way, what is alarming is the government’s reluctance to admit that the true number of pandemic-related deaths is 6-8 times higher than the official number. Instead, the government is poking holes in the studies. The Ministry of Health objected to the “methodology” adopted by the WHO study which involved experts from all over the world!

Let’s put the methodology aside, let’s move on to common sense. There were 6,64,369 villages in India in 2019. Assuming that 20% of these villages were too remote and therefore unaffected by the pandemic (an incorrect assumption), that leaves over 5,00,000 villages. Even if, on average, two people in each village had died from the virus (a gross underestimate), that would make the number 10,00,000. Add the death toll in towns and cities (the urban population is 35%), we will arrive at a total of 15,00,000.

Poverty and taxes

Another tally has also sparked controversy, although the government is happy with the result. A World Bank working paper indicates that extreme poverty in India has decreased by 12.3%, from 22.5% (2011) to 10.2% (2019), with rural areas performing better ( down 14.7%). I agree that poverty has decreased, but there are many caveats. First, the study stops in 2019 and does not take into account the devastation caused by the pandemic. Second, all indicators since March 2020 have pointed downwards and Azim Premji University has estimated that 23 million people have, since 2020, been pushed into poverty. Thus, the presumed gains made up to 2019 have been wiped out. Third, the negatives have yet to be overcome: the bulk of lost jobs have not returned, rising household debt has not been reversed, and new job opportunities are still scarce.

Yet another tally is controversial. In Washington, the Minister of Finance asserted that “our revenue to save the economy was not going to come from taxing people. No ‘Covid tax’ was levied on anyone.” This is a tall claim, given that the central government had collected in 2020-21 and 2021-22 from fuel taxes alone Rs 8,16,126 crore and from other contributions to the treasury from oil companies (through to super profits) Rs 72,531 crore.

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

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