Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge on Tuesday claimed that the deaths caused due to the coronavirus disease in India cannot be less than 52.4 lakh, PTI reported.

Many health experts believe that India’s official toll of 4,14,482 so far is an undercount. But, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has dismissed such concerns as “baseless and absolutely false”.

“The government is releasing fake figures [of coronavirus deaths] and it is far away from the truth,” Kharge alleged in the Upper House during a discussion on the pandemic.

Kharge said that there are around 6,38,565 lakh villages in the country and even if there were five Covid-19 deaths in a village, the toll would be 31,91,825. Noting that there are 7,935 urban cities, he added that even if there were 10 deaths in each city, the total fatality count would be around 7,93,500.

Similarly, he pointed out that there would be an estimated 3,60,000 deaths in 19 metros. “On an average, it comes to 52.43 lakh deaths,” he said. “It cannot be less than this. Still, they [the government] say it is only 4-5 lakh. They keep saying this.”

However, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya defended India’s official numbers, reported The Hindu. Mandaviya told the Rajya Sabha that if there was any underreporting of deaths, it was by the states. He said that the Centre only compiles the data given by the states and publishes them.

Mandaviya added that there was no reason for the government to hide deaths. “We accept there have been deaths due to Covid.” he said, according to NDTV. “The prime minister himself has said deaths must be recorded. There is absolutely no reason to hide this...But to blame all deaths on one person is not the right thing to do.”

Study on excess deaths

The debate in the Parliament happened on the same day when a study published by the United States-based Center for Global Development showed that the excess deaths in India were estimated to be between 34 lakh and 47 lakh – about 10 times higher than India’s official Covid-19 toll, reported the BBC.

Excess deaths are a measure of how many more people are dying than is expected as compared to the previous few years.

The study used three different data sources to estimate India’s excess deaths during the coronavirus pandemic till June 21.

First, the researchers considered death registrations from seven states that account for half of India’s population – Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. The study, however, said that there could be problems with this extrapolation of data from the seven states to arrive at an all-India estimate, reported the Hindustan Times. The study said that it was possible that the Covid-19 mortality in the “rest of India is different from the seven states”.

The second source came from combining Covid seroprevalence data and international estimates of the age-specific mortality rate.

Sero surveys are conducted on a subset of the population to examine for Covid-19 antibodies. The data, called the seroprevalence, is then extrapolated to arrive at an estimate for the whole population.

Third, the researchers studied India’s consumer survey of 8,68,000 citizens across 1,77,000 households which also records whether any member of the family had died in the past four months.

“True deaths are likely to be in the several millions not hundreds of thousands, making this arguably India’s worst human tragedy since partition and independence,” the report, co-authored by India’s former Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian, said.

Subramanian, however, added that not all these deaths were caused by Covid-19 and an estimation of the actual death toll by the disease would be difficult to give.