Uttar Pradesh's fight against COVID-19 currently presents a grim picture, even if one goes by official data alone. However, when official claims are scrutinised in the context of long queues at cremation grounds and large-scale discrepancies in data, the picture becomes even more alarming.
The state government is now facing intense scrutiny from the Allahabad High Court, which has asked it to report the number of COVID-19 deaths in both public and private hospitals to a judicial officer in each district.
The court has also said the officer-in-charge of the police station under which each crematorium falls should ensure that COVID-19 deaths are recorded in the register and then communicated to the municipal body concerned.
Opposition leaders including Priyanka Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav have also levelled allegations of underreporting of deaths and fudging of data.
In this context, here is an overview of coronavirus fatalities in Uttar Pradesh, which stands in sharp contrast to official data.
Till 29 April, Uttar Pradesh reported a total of 12,241 COVID-19 deaths and 12,17,955 coronavirus cases. In comparison, Maharashtra reported 67,985 deaths and 45,39,553 total infections, while Delhi has recorded 14,616 fatalities and 10,53,701 cases. As on 29 April, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are the third and fourth worst-affected states in terms of number of deaths recorded. The death and cumulative case figures for Karnataka till 29 April stand at 15,306 and 14,74,846 respectively while those for Tamil Nadu are 13,933 and 11,48,064 respectively.
Thus, Uttar Pradesh's official data would suggest that it is in better condition than some other states. However, reports from different points in time over the past month have been highlighting a higher than usual number of cremations and burials in cities and districts like Kanpur, Ghaziabad and Agra.
The reports also paint a picture of relatives and kin waiting for hours at crematoriums and burial grounds in some parts of the state.
According to an NDTV report, in the week preceding 15 April, in Lucknow alone, deaths of as many as 276 COVID-19 positive people were missing from the state government's official records. The total death count released by the govt for the seven-day period in the city was 124 while records maintained by crematoriums in the city put the figure at 400.
Seeking to explain the discrepancies in the numbers, the state's deputy chief minister Dinesh Sharma told NDTV that the government was only keeping records of those admitted in hospitals or those registered with the Chief Minister's Office. "..people who come from other districts and states and unfortunately die here, they also get cremated in the city," the report quotes Sharma as saying.
According to a report by The Indian Express report dated 22 April, patients in Lucknow also grappled with the issue of shortage of hospital beds and struggled to get admission to health facilities. The report also said that a UP government Twitter handle by the name of "Info Uttar Pradesh Fact Check" had dismissed reports that hospitals required a letter from the CMO and that the integrated COVID command control room would assist COVID-19 patients in various aspects including in getting admission to hospitals. Several persons looking for beds for their relatives still told the newspaper that medical facilities had told them that patients can be admitted only after a referral from the Central Command Centre for COVID.
NDTV also reported that a day after a video of a crematorium in Lucknow, showing a large number of burning pyres was shared widely on social media, the crematorium ground was covered with blue metal sheets and a notice informing that unauthorised persons were prevented from accessing the area was put up.
Reports coming from other cities such as Kanpur also speak of the high number of cremations at crematoriums in contrast with the official data, which puts the death figures much lower.
According to a PTI report dated 25 April, data from Bhairoghat and Bhagwatghat crematoriums in Kapur city shows that 462 bodies were consigned to the flames from 19 April to 24 April, considerably higher than the official COVID-19 death figure of 66 for the entire district over the six-day period. Of these, 406 cremations took place at Bhairoghat while 56 were in Bhagwatghat.
Qamruddin, a Kanpur Municipal Corporation employee at the Bhairoghat electric crematorium, claimed that the number of cremations had increased several folds in the preceding week.
"Until last month, we were cremating less than 10 bodies a day, but for the last 10 days, we have been handling over 50 bodies every day," he said.
Quoting data, Qamruddin also claimed that 91 of the 406 funerals at Bhairoghat had taken place on just 21 April. People are waiting for hours to conduct the last rites, he said.
Dhaniram Panther, a social worker who voluntarily performs last rites of unclaimed bodies, claimed the Bhairoghat crematorium cremated 50 to 90 bodies a day during the previous week, much higher than Knapur's official daily coronavirus toll of approximately 10.
"I have been regularly performing cremations of unclaimed bodies for decades, but I haven't seen bodies in such large numbers awaiting funeral. Sometimes the crematorium ran out of wood and people were asked to bring it themselves," Panther said, adding that a large number of bodies were also being brought to Muslim graveyards, resulting in a lack of space for further burials.
Additional District Magistrate Atul Kumar told the news agency that "it is impossible to hide or alter the death toll" as information about all the COVID-19 patients as well as their recovery or deaths is uploaded on the government portal.
The official however refused to comment over the large number of bodies being brought to the crematoriums, contrary to the COVID-19 death figures being shared with the media and displayed on the official portal.
Agra, Jhansi, Ghaziabad
A report by The Wire, focusing on the districts of Agra, Jhansi, Bareilly and Ghaziabad, told a similar story. According to the report, till 18 April, Ghaziabad district had officially reported only four COVID-related deaths. However, workers at the Hindon cremation ground told the publication that they were struggling to cremate the bodies arriving in large numbers for cremation.
More than 50 bodies of COVID patients had reached the cremation ground on 16 April, and the situation was similar on 17 April, with close to 50 bodies being brought, a worker told The Wire. According to the report, the official bulletin released by the UP government showed zero deaths in the district.
Meanwhile, Mahendra Singh Tanwar, the district's municipal commissioner told the media that close to 10 bodies had arrived for cremation at the ground.
In Agra district, while the state government said only four COVID-19 related deaths occurred on 17 April the report claims that 48 dead bodies had turned up at the Tajganj cremation ground alone. A worker by the name of Rahul told The Wire that on 17 April, "around 30 bodies were cremated using the wood-based cremation, and another 30 using the gas-based electric crematorium."
Quoting the data maintained by the cremation ground, the report said there were 36 cremations (including both wood-based and electric) on 12 and 13 April, 48 on 14 April 14, 50 on 15 April, 59 on 16 April, and 68 on 17 April. In contrast to this, the govt data shows two deaths on 12 April, three on 17 and 18 April and none on 13 and 15.
According to the report, a fourfold increase has been recorded in the number of bodies turning up for cremation in Jhansi district. According to the state government bulletin, just seven deaths had occurred in the district till 18 April.
According to report, the state's official data for Bareilly on 16 April differed from the data recorded by the local health department. While health department said that there were seven deaths in the preceding 24 hours, the UP government official data stated there were no deaths in the district.
Data from crematoriums also showed a different picture, with a worker at the City Shamshan Bhoomi, claiming that seven cremations had been performed with COVID-19 protocol there. As per data from the Sanjay Nagar cremation ground, there were seven more cremations there.
According to the report, the health department pegged the number of COVID-19 related deaths in the district at four on 17 April but the cremation ground records showed seven COVID-19 related deaths at the City Shamshan Bhoomi and six at the Sanjay Nagar cremation ground.
As per this Firstpost report, this week too, crematoriums and burial grounds in Bareilly recorded a large number of bodies arriving, much in excess of the COVID-19 deaths reported by officials.
Bareilly chief medical officer Dr Sudhir Garg on Thursday said there have three-four deaths due to COVID-19 over the past few days. However, according to the numbers provided by a senior official of the managing committee of the City Shamshan Bhoomi, 115 bodies arrived at that cremation ground alone in the three days.
An official at the Sanjay Nagar crematorium said 40 to 42 dead bodies were arriving every day and that most deaths are due to COVID-19.
Garg said that there have been around 185 deaths due to the coronavirus infection in Bareilly in 2021. When asked about the number of people being cremated daily, the CMO said the bodies were from other districts like Kanpur, Kasganj, Uttarakhand, Pilibhit, Badaun, Lucknow etc, and even from Nepal, which was contested by the Sanjay Nagar Crematorium official.
Another report by The Wire, using data from Varanasi's Harishchandra crematorium, local inputs from the Manikarnika crematorium and rough data from graveyards, estimated that at least 50 percent of the deaths due to COVID-19 between 1 and 15 April were missing from the state government's bulletin.
According to the report, the official bulletin puts the number of COVID-19 deaths in Varanasi on 14 April at three but six bodies had to be cremated at the local Harishchandra crematorium adhering to safety protocols.
The report also notes discrepancies in state government and municipal corporation data on 12, 13, 14 and 15 April.
According to the report, municipal commissioner Gaurang Rathi however maintained that less than 15 deaths are occurring in Varanasi every day due to COVID-19, including of those not admitted to hospitals. He also said the municipal corporation doesn't have official data on whether COVID-19 patients' bodies being cremated at the Manikarnika crematorium ground are making it to the official list but added that the crematorium is always full, owing to its historical significance.
Reports have also emerged in the state of a lack of oxygen. AMU's Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital on Wednesday sent out an alert, saying it has not received oxygen cylinders for the past four days and its own plants are running out of liquid oxygen. Officials told PTI that frontline central government hospital in Uttar Pradesh has 273 oxygen-dependent patients, including those suffering from COVID-19.
Later in the day, hospital authorities said they had received an oxygen supply in the afternoon that would last for the next 48 hours.
However, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had earlier denied any shortage of oxygen and said the real problem in back marketing and hoarding. Moreover, according to report by The Hindu, Adityanath has asked officials to take action under the National Security Act and seize the property of those who spread "rumours" and propaganda on social media and try to "spoil the atmosphere". The chief minister also claimed that there was no shortage of drugs like Remdesivir in the state.
In an effort reportedly to curb black-marketing , the state government also passed an order on 21 April, allowing only hospitals to handle oxygen supply and prohibiting its supply to individuals, "except for those in serious conditions", reported The Print. The report pointed out that that order had put patients in home isolation, who may require oxygen, at risk.
The Allahabad High Court has pulled up the state government for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic in the second wave. Earlier it had directed the state government to impose strict restrictions till April 26 in five cities, but this was stayed by the Supreme Court after the state government approached it and argued that to lockdown five cities by a judicial order may not be the right approach.
The state's counsel had argued that the high court order would create immense administrative difficulties and added the state government has issued several directions and taken adequate precautions on the issue.
At present, the measures in the state include night curfew (from 8 pm to 7 am) and weekend lockdown, which was on Thursday extended to continue till 7 am on Tuesdays, among others.
The Allahabad High Court on 27 April again hauled up the UP government, stating that the Yogi Adityanath government had become complacent in monitoring the spread of COVID-19 in Uttar Pradesh by the end of 2020.
The court reiterated its request to impose a two-week lockdown and asked the state government to ramp up its "saturated" healthcare infrastructure.
"The ghost of corona is marching on the roads and streets of the major cities of Uttar Pradesh," the bench consisting of Justices Siddhartha Varma and Ajit Kumar said.
The court directed the state government to immediately implement certain steps in ten cities, Prayagraj, Lucknow, Varanasi, Agra, Kanpur Nagar, Meerut, Ghaziabad, Gautam Buddha Nagar, Gorakhpur, and Jhansi.
It directed the government to ensure that every death in COVID hospitals, assigned private hospitals and other COVID centres in every district is reported to a judicial officer and to ensure the correctness of the data forwarded to the officer concerned each day.
On 28 April, Uttar Pradesh registered 266 COVID-19 fatalities and 29,824 new cases. On 29 April, the state recorded a single-day rise of 298 COVID-19 deaths and 35,156 fresh cases.
With the virus showing no signs of abating, the state government must heed the measures suggested by Allahabad HC and ensure COVID related deaths are properly recorded, instead of ordering a crackdown on those raising issues faced by COVID patients on social media.
With inputs from agencies