Ranjona Banerji: Wanted: Deep Investigation & Data Journalism

22 Jun,2021

Ranjona BanerjiBy Ranjona Banerji


The Prime Minister announced earlier in June that a grand scheme of “free vaccines” for the 18-44 age group would begin on June 21, because June 21 was International Yoga Day, or the Summer Solstice or The Longest Day or See I Can Lie on a Rock As Well As in My Public Speeches Day or something.


And on June 22, wonder of wonders, India’s media is beside itself with glee! In one day, India has vaccinated 8.5 million people in one day. O Callooh Callay! And most of all in BJP-run states. Ooops, don’t say a word.


This article in Mint, while full of almost uncontainable excitement, does point out that India needs to vaccinate at least 10 million a day and that less than 5 percent of Indians have had both doses.



Let’s look at the media and Madhya Pradesh. MP vaccinated 1.5 million people on June 21 according to government figures.



But there is another side to what’s happening in Madhya Pradesh and one does not always read or hear enough of what’s happening because we in the media get so excited about publicity campaigns.


A series of investigations into the Civil Registration System’s recording of all deaths by the news site Scroll shows a massive spike in deaths in MP in April and May 2021. This was the second Covid-19 wave. The state recorded 3.3 lakh deaths in those two months, some 1.7 lakh in excess of its average.



A comprehensive report on similar data for Madhya Pradesh in The Wire also reveals just how states are trying to hide Covid-19 deaths:



This is a pattern reported across India. But it takes dogged investigation to get past India’s normal official obfuscation. And when it comes to Covid-19 deaths, India is very chary about revealing the truth.


Thus one might congratulate MP for its 1.5 million vaccines in one day. However, data shows that this vaccination drive was long overdue and barely a drop in massive ocean of India’s 1.3 billion population where approximately 940 million is the number eligible for vaccination. India has not started vaccinating children yet, although some parts of the world have.


Data journalism and deep investigation are the only ways out of well-hidden Covid-19 secrets. Like the probe into the false Covid-19 tests done during the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, which took a persistent insurance agent in Punjab and a bold decision by The Times of India’s bureau in Dehradun to see the light of day. In case you’ve forgotten because you go so carried away by PM Modi’s  Yoga Day speech or some political finagling somewhere or the other, of the 400,000 Covid19 tests done during the Kumbh Mela, 100,000 are now revealed as fake.


In Assam, which has just been through an assembly election, excess deaths were recorded by the CSR at the tail end of 2020, which figures do not tally with Assam’s Covid19 deaths.



In Gujarat of course, regional newspapers have concentrated on contrasting government figures and fudging with actual deaths based on mortuary, cremation and burial ground figures.


This opinion piece by Om Gaur, national editor of Dainik Bhaskar, was for The New York Times. The headline itself is poignant, “The Ganga is returning the dead. It does not lie”, but Gaur’s words are pointedly sharp:


“Rural poverty has exacerbated the effects of the second wave of infections, but it was the Modi government’s callous disregard that triggered the latest surge. The authorities allowed the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, in the spring, as well as elections in several states, including Uttar Pradesh.”



Media celebrations over increased vaccinations are very sweet. Only as long as the larger bitter story is not forgotten. Or buried like our official Covid-19 figures.


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator, She writes on MxMIndia every Tuesday and Friday. Her views here are personal


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