Excess deaths challenge India’s official Covid toll

The second wave of Covid-19 saw an exponential rise in deaths as hospitals ran out of beds and crematoriums were flooded with bodies in several states. (Photo: Reuters)

India lost an average of 840 lives every day to Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Based on the official toll from the pandemic, the numbers work out to nearly three per cent of the total daily deaths recorded otherwise in the country.

Does this figure reflect the extent of the blow the virus has inflicted on the world’s second-most populous nation in the last 15 months?


India Today TV scoured through civil registration, hospital and other sources across several states for the total deaths recorded during 2021 and the corresponding period in previous years.

When co-related with the toll officially attributed to Covid-19, the data revealed that only a small percentage of excess deaths were officially accounted to the pandemic in the current year.

The analysis, in fact, shows that the first five months of 2021 have seen more deaths than what was the case during the same period in the last few years. The number of excess deaths through the ferocious second wave is much higher than the reported Covid-19 deaths.


The state recorded more than 3.30 lakh deaths from all causes till June 19 this year. It means 95,000 more deaths than 2.35 lakhs recorded in 2019 and 86,000 more than 2.44 lakh in 2018 during the same six-month period.

Of the 95,000 excess deaths in 2021 compared to 2019, which happened to be a non-pandemic year, the state attributed 21,667 fatalities to Covid-19. That still leaves one with extra deaths of nearly 73,000 or 31 per cent of the total fatalities reported in the same period in 2019.

The Karnataka government, however, rules out any glaring discrepancy.

“We have nothing to hide or fudge because this is not our motive,” said state health minister K Sudhakar. “There could be some technical error, but it can’t be in such large numbers.”


In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, the state recorded a total of 3.18 lakh deaths till May this year, which is 68,000 more than 2.50 lakh in 2019 and 82,000 more than 2.36 lakh in 2018 during the corresponding period.

Tamil Nadu’s official Covid death tally stood at 12,097 from January to May this year.

In other words, the state saw nearly 56,000 extra deaths in the first five months of this year other than what have been included under the category of Covid fatalities.

“There is no need for the government to show a reduced death rate. We have visited 23 districts till now and we have told all district collectors to not hide any deaths, and we can’t hide deaths as well,” says Tamil Nadu health minister MA Subramanian.

ALSO READ | Report claims huge underreporting of Covid-19 deaths in Tamil Nadu, govt denies


Crematories in Delhi overflowed in April and May, when the pandemic was at its worst.

Cases rose rapidly, test positivity rates climbed above the alarming level of 40 per cent for a while and hospitals ran out of medical oxygen.

The Delhi government’s health bulletin placed the Covid toll at 13,201 in those two months. But crematories showed 19,715 deaths from the pandemic.

And the city’s three municipal corporations issued a total of 34,750 death certificates in April-May, up from 5,475 issued in the corresponding period last year.

Delhi’s health minister Satyendra Jain, however, insists all deaths in Delhi are duly recorded and so are Covid deaths per the protocols.


In Rajasthan, India Today TV checked municipal records of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, and Udaipur.

Together, they reported 23,306 deaths in April and May this year compared to 7,263 in the corresponding period of 2020. Their official Covid toll though stands at 2,213 in April and May 2021.

The state’s health minister Raghu Sharma offers the same explanation: Deaths are recorded per the set protocols.


There have been reports of Gujarat undercounting its Covid dead.

Till May 31, the state officially recorded 9,833 fatalities from the two waves of Covid-19.

But the Gujarat Congress claims 24,000 deaths were reported on the Google form it issued last month for the public, 90 per cent of them it says happened during the second wave alone.

In April, Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, however, said, “If patients with severe diabetes are hospitalised, chances of their survival become low even if they do not contract Covid-19. If elderly chronic cancer patients die after contracting Covid-19, their co-morbidity becomes the primary cause of their death.”


It is hard to make out from Maharashtra’s available numbers whether the state under-reported Covid-related deaths or not.

Maharashtra recorded a total of 6.93 lakh deaths in 2019, 7.01 lakh in 2020 and 1.83 lakh between January-April in 2021.

Total Covid-related deaths in the state from January to May this year have been 45,800.


Earlier, reports in international media outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the BBC pointed toward a possible undercounting of Covid fatalities in India.

Government officials, however, have repeatedly denied under-reporting the pandemic deaths.

On May 27, Joint Secretary (health) Lav Agarwal described an NYT report headlined “Just how big could India true Covid toll be?” as factually incorrect.

“The report that’s being referred to is totally baseless and absolutely false because it’s not supported by any evidence. There’s no clarity on what basis the calculations have been done. Our country has a robust system for registration and reporting of deaths,” he said.

ALSO READ | Confusion prevails over Covid death tally in Delhi as govt, municipality data does not match

ALSO READ | India’s rural districts accounted for every second Covid death, 53% new cases in May: Report

ALSO WATCH | Did India under-report its Covid death toll?

Marilynn Veness

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