India’s Manufactured Amnesia Over Its Covid-19 Lockdown Deaths

Citing lack of data, India’s labour, railway, agriculture ministers have claimed no one died because of a Covid-19 lockdown imposed at a four-hour notice a year ago. That is not true. At least 989—likely an underestimate— people died between March and July 2020, as per a database built by volunteers


AMAN, THEJESH GN, KRUSHNA RANAWARE & KANIKA SHARMA

Migrant workers rushed to head home after the sudden lockdown was announced on 23 March 2020/MANOEJ PAATEEL

New Delhi, Bengaluru, Atlanta (US): A year after the announcement of India’s Covid-19 lockdown on 23 March 2020, the effects of that step continue to reverberate, reminding the country of the humanitarian crisis the sudden move triggered.


The latest reminder came on 14 March 2021 with the story of Berjom Bamda Pahadiya, a migrant labourer who finally reached home, after losing his job during the lockdown, getting exploited by his contractor and walking for nearly seven months from Delhi to Jharkhand.


Many never made it home at all, as our database counting such deaths not directly related to the pandemic shows.


For many from India’s vulnerable sections—migrant workers, the urban and rural poor, patients and pregnant women, children, and the elderly—this lockdown was, in fact, a death sentence.


At least 989 deaths occurred not because of Covid-19 per se, but from financial distress, exhaustion, road and train accidents, suicides due to fear of infection and quarantine, denial of timely medical care, alcohol withdrawal, police brutality, and vigilantism as a result of the lockdown.


These deaths don’t even “count as footnotes in the history of India’s response to the pandemic”, as the columnist Shivam Vij put it.


Invisible Numbers

In the absence of any official count or tracking exercise, there is no easy way to gauge the number of deaths that were caused by the lockdown.


Such an effort ought to have been conducted by the state, which had the capacity to track and respond to such deaths. Absolving the government of that responsibility, India’s labour minister, referring to the deaths of migrant workers during the lockdown, told Parliament in September 2020 that “no such data is maintained”.


Anticipating this response from the government, we began a modest attempt to use media reports from the beginning of the lockdown until July 2020 to gather data about deaths caused by the lockdown.

We recorded nearly a thousand deaths in a publicly maintained database under the various categories we mentioned, with the caveat that the numbers are likely an underestimate of the deaths caused by the lockdown. These numbers, though widely reported from time to time, were unacknowledged.



That the government is willing to overlook these deaths, or dismiss them as stray or collateral deaths is apparent. As Siddharth Peter de Souza, a researcher at the Global Data Justice project, wrote in December 2020: “It raises questions about the priorities of what data is [considered] valuable enough to be collected, what data is considered okay to share, and what data can be ignored or made invisible.”

Denials Of Death

The lack of a will to acknowledge these deaths is in line with the Indian government’s frequent denials, often suffixed with assertions that it had done all it could, and justified failures, where needed, as “act(s) of God”. The labour minister’s claim of zero lockdown deaths because of lack of data was similar to denials by the railway and agriculture ministers.

Even the courts became silent spectators to such denials.

At the Supreme Court, the Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta alluded to the crisis being fuelled by misinformation by “vultures” and “prophets of doom”. The Supreme Court of India rejected or adjourned petitions on the migrant labourer issue multiple times, citing questionable legal (as Article 14 reported in June 2020), justifications and flavoring such rejection with remarks not backed by fact or logic.

In one such remark, Justice L Nageswara Rao said: “How can we stop them from walking? It is impossible for this Court to monitor who is walking and who is not walking?” Similarly, Justice SK Kaul observed: “Your knowledge is based on newspaper clippings. How can you expect us to pass orders? Let the States take action”. The same Court had not raised doubts when the Solicitor General of India, at the peak of the migrant exodus, said on record that no one was on the road.

Denials also came from local administration and the media.


For instance, a woman in Uttar Pradesh drowned her five children in the Ganga in April 2020, citing hunger as a motivation for her actions, but later withdrew her statement after questioning by the authorities and issued a new statement surrounded by the police.

Similarly, in Jharkhand, a five-year-old girl died due to starvation. The local sub-divisional magistrate denied starvation and claimed the child died due to illness, even though the mother said her child was not ill.


Time And Public Memory

In contrast to outright denials of these deaths by India’s government were the observations of a South African judge on a similarly stringent lockdown being imposed in his country.

In a May 2020 ruling on the use of excessive force by South African security forces in enforcing lockdown regulations, the judge observed: “The virus may well be contained (but not defeated until a vaccine is found) but what is the point if the result of harsh enforcement measures is a famine, an economic wasteland and the total loss of freedom, the right to dignity and the security of the person and overall, the maintenance of the rule of law. The answer in my view is: there is no point.”

No judge, government representative or state functionary in India has publicly acknowledged the crisis created by India’s lockdown. The government said that the question of compensation to the families of the dead “does not arise”, given the absence of any data on deaths.

Instead, over time, using its own reports and the media, the government has claimed the lockdown was successful. If nothing else, we hope that these deaths will remain in public memory, so that we remember the price India’s most vulnerable people have had to pay for its lockdown.


(Aman is an assistant professor of legal practice at the Jindal Global School of Law, Thejesh G N is a public interest technologist, Krushna Ranaware is a PhD student (social science) at Syracuse University, and Kanika Sharma is a PhD student (sociology) at Emory University.

The authors are grateful for support from Roadscholarz, freelance scholars and student volunteers interested in action-oriented research, socio-economic rights and related issues. See full database here: https://thejeshgn.com/projects/covid19-india/non-virus-deaths.)


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