In 2014, when Narendra Modi swept to power riding on the success of his much vaunted but largely unknown “Gujarat Model”, it was an important question to ask a bureaucrat who had worked with him- “what should we expect from him as PM in Delhi?” He was categorical: “ Expect his government to fudge data, scare bureaucrats and announce all kinds of policies that will never meet their targets. Also, personally, he would not meet journalists, as he hates you guys”.
Clearly he was not enamored of the much vaunted skills of his boss, but seven years after Modi rode to power, every word of this bureaucrat- who perished in Coronavirus- has rung true. What has compounded the issue is that these failings and stratagems have played out as a gargantuan national tragedy. The result for this compulsive fudging or manipulation of data is that it has left the country completely unprepared to deal with an explosion in the number of dying and infected people. These are not just numbers, but real people who have been reduced to dead bodies draped in shrouds waiting in long unending queues outside graveyards or crematoriums waiting for their final journey. The dead, victims of fudging, are bobbing up as nameless bloated carcasses in rivers, or are hidden away in registers of births and deaths to tell the believers that they died as the leader was asleep on the while. Their deaths also convey to the world that India’s data cannot be trusted- like that of the Chinese.
What is more distressing is that, even after thousands of unexplained deaths, the strategy of fighting virus remains fudged data.
In the last 7 years, Modi has not addressed a single press conference, but announced all kinds of policies from Digital India, to Skill India to Swacch Bharat Abhiyan to show he meant business. None of these programmes have met their promised targets and typically he has moved to the next announcement. To show results, the government has done the only thing with great felicity- fudge data. Every conceivable sector’s performance has been dressed up. Gross Domestic Product was particularly targeted to show how sterling was the performance of Modi government in comparison to that of his predecessor, UPA’s economist Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. Through constant torturing of data every year after NDA came to power, the sarkari economists finally managed to diminish the growth rate under that of Singh. Former Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramanian, provided the justification for reducing the growth rate under Singh by claiming that governments (UPA and NDA included) in the past some years, routinely souped up GDP by about 2 percent. The government was further emboldened to flaunt its dodgy data when it forced skeptical foreign rating agencies and multilateral bodies to accept it too.
Now the NDA government has not just used manipulated and fudged data to take vital economic decisions, but it also allowed its political and social prejudices to find corroboration and expression from unreliable data. The policy decisions that it took that involved the setting up of National Register of Citizens (NRC) or Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) are all premised on the flawed assumption that there are far more undocumented Muslims and outsiders than what is known. What was not challenged was the shoddy record of the government in managing figures- even when it involved people’s lives
When the first wave of the pandemic swept the country, India was subjected to claustrophobic lockdown when the cases of the infected were barely 600. Quite evidently honest economic and social indicators and data were not the guiding factors for this decision that sent Indian economy plummeting south with a collapse in GDP growth rate by 39 percent. It also sent millions of urban migrants walking back to their distant villages. Again the government did not have a clue or chose to ignore their role in economy.
The country may have saved itself in 2020 from the pain of an intense first wave allowing the PM Modi to thump his chest to the world that the country had managed to beat back the virus. He also bragged that India was helping 150 countries of the world including 80 odd that were being given Indian made vaccines. These claims were made when the country could have benefited from vaccinations to ward off the tsunami of the second wave, which came in March 2021 and pommeled the country. Instead, Modi looking for global recognition decided to distribute the vaccines to countries that were not even facing soaring covid numbers.
Around the same time, the government ignored warnings, history and even the fact that many countries in Europe, South Africa and Brazil had a tough new variant of virus, to carry on with its reckless ways. Basic caution that people have rote learned “ washing hands” and “ social distancing of 2 yards”, were ignored when the central government decided to embark on two major events- elections to 5 states and the gargantuan Kumbh congregation of devotees. There are enough indications that the government chose to pre-pone the Kumbh, which saw about 4-5 million people taking a dip in the holy river Ganges, for reasons of forthcoming 2022 elections to Uttar Pradesh.
To reiterate, the central government did not factor how the elections and the Kumbh could be super spreader events. Was it not given this important advise? Reuter news service quotes that the second wave warning was given by a group of scientist to the PMO, but it was ignored. Quite expectedly, the two events have aggravated Covid-19 in a manner not seen before. WHO has attributed the giant wave of Coronavirus that may kill millions to these two events. West Bengal, where testing of the virus had been stopped due to the elections, is now seeing 2000 percent increase from its election levels. The fact that West Bengal saw the BJP bringing thousands of its volunteers from UP and Bihar has meant that they return home after the polls with the virus.
Similarly, those who went to Kumbh are the new super spreaders. All over the Hindi heartland where ever these devotees returned, the people in these places have been infected by the coronavirus. States like Gujarat, that hid their dead for long to show how well its social and economic model performed, resemble like a deathly war zone. The obituary columns of the newspapers tell the real story: !0 out of 18 pages of Saurashtra Samachar carried 232 obituaries on May 10, 2021 alone. Only 26 obituaries were there in these pages, two months ago. Gujarat Government, true to its wont, hides inconvenient data so still puts out figures of the dead, which have no link with reality.
Uttar Pradesh is no better. The tyranny of the monk chief minister and the brutality that his administration represents, has forced many hospitals and the poor to hide their dead. Hundreds of the infected have either been buried in the banks of the rivers, or thrown in the river so that they do not add numbers to the official register at the government controlled crematorium.
Satellite images of Uttar Pradesh cities alongside river Ganges showed fires raging in all the informal cremation grounds. Comparison with similar images few months ago at the same time showed no such activity.
The numbers of the dead are so huge in UP that no one has gone about the task of counting. Most fear the wrath of a Chief minister Yogi who has threatened media or anyone suggesting paucity of Oxygen in hospitals or spike in death rate with jail terms and seizure of property. The virus and administration, both are so threatening, that doctors and health care workers are deserting hospitals. That ways no one knows how many are falling sick or dying. Maybe at a later date, when the Election Commission gets down to updating its voter list before the next assembly elections in 2022, we may get to know about the total number of those who lost their lives to the pandemic. The story in Bihar is tragically no different.
Lancet magazine expects a million to die by August 1, 2021. It still could be a gross underestimation. The big question is will anyone be brought to task for this criminal fudging of data that denies the deceased the dignity they deserve rather being reduced to an unknown bloated body floating in the river. (Ends)