India’s former Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian on Friday said that there could be no dispute on the fact that Covid-19 deaths in India were underreported and that the question was on its magnitude, NDTV reported.

In an interview to the news channel, Subramanian was speaking on a report published by him and two other researchers last week, which puts India’s pandemic toll in the range of 34 lakh to 47 lakh. The estimated count is much higher than the official toll of 4.20 lakh.

The report estimates that there were 15 lakh-34 lakh excess deaths in India between April 2020 to March 2021. Meanwhile, the excess toll during the second wave (April-June) has been pegged at 14 lakh-24 lakh.

Excess deaths is the divergence between all-cause deaths reported this year and in normal years. While all excess deaths are not likely to be due to Covid-19, a majority of them are expected to be linked to the coronavirus disease during the pandemic.

Subramanian backed the findings of the study by pointing at a recent countrywide sero survey report which showed that 67.6%, or more than two-thirds of India’s population, has been exposed to the coronavirus till now.

“With such high sero prevalence...such a high population, this is what you will expect to find,” Subramanian said.

Serological surveys reveal how many people may have been infected with the novel coronavirus in an area. However, it still is not clear how long antibodies last in infected persons and what level of antibodies is needed to protect a person from reinfection.

Subramanian also dismissed the Centre’s recent claim that no Covid-19 deaths were reported in the country due to lack of oxygen supply. The Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare Bharati Pravin Pawar told the Parliament that states did not specifically report any deaths due to oxygen shortages.

“To say that there were no oxygen-related deaths defies any sense of what happened,” the former chief economic adviser said. He said that the matter highlighted the need for state governments, and not just the central government, to undertake surveys to find out the actual data on Covid-19 deaths.

As a case in point for underreporting of deaths in India, Subramanian said that the toll in Uttar Pradesh was recorded more accurately during the first wave of the pandemic, as compared to the second one.

“The second wave numbers in UP seem extremely low,” the economist said, referring to a report which showed that 24 districts in the state recorded 1,97,000 more deaths between July 2020 and March 2021 than in the corresponding period the previous year. The mortality rate was 110% higher than the same period the previous year.

Subramanian also said that the number of deaths could be “somewhat more or less” than the predictions made in his study and that the audit for fatalities has to be an ongoing process.

Underreporting of Covid-19 deaths in India

India’s official Covid-19 toll is widely considered to be an underestimate of the actual number of deaths that occurred in the country. To bridge the potential gaps in the data, researchers have used data from the Civil Registration System to gauge the difference between deaths registered during the pandemic years – 2020 and 2021 – and other years.

The Civil Registration System is a nationwide system of recording all births and deaths, led by the Office of the Registrar General of India, and also implemented at the state-level. The system is meant to record deaths from all causes and every location, whether they were medically certified or not.

The study by Subramanian and his colleagues also took into account the Civil Registration System data from seven states. Besides, it also considered blood tests showing the prevalence of the virus in India alongside global Covid-19 fatality rates and the country’s economic survey which covers nine lakh people and is conducted three times a year, AP reported.

Latest data from the National Health Mission’s Health Management Information System shows that nearly 3 lakh more deaths occurred in May, compared to May 2019. This figure is more than 2.5 times India’s official Covid-19 death count for the same period.

In the past couple of months, similar data on excess deaths has emerged for states such as Haryana,Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.