The Supreme Court’s hearing last week on the disbursal of Rs 50,000 as ex-gratia compensation to the next of kin of Covid victims was loaded with judicial empathy. Since it was the court that had coaxed the Centre into offering compensation, the threat of contempt hung on the heads of sloppy babus. Data emerging from the hearing told an interesting story.
Kerala increased its toll by and by to over 49,000 but curiously received claims from only 27,000 families. In most other states, the claims were way above the official casualty count. For example, the applications Gujarat received for ex-gratia were nine times the recorded death of about 10,000. Maharashtra’s claims totalled 2,13,000 as against its official toll of 1,47,887.
In states like Bihar with 11,000 claims as against 13,000 registered deaths, the Bench suspected the skew was due to the government’s poor communication of the compensation scheme to the people. The SC was also caustic about babudom mechanically rejecting claims on technicalities and directed the induction of the State Legal Services Authority for last-mile connectivity to the claimant families.
At present, the recorded deaths in India since the outbreak of Covid is nearing 5 lakh. But mass cremations and burials during the height of Covid’s second wave suggest a much higher toll. A multitude of domain experts have since called out the under-counting, with The Economist claiming India’s actual toll could be closer to 50 lakh. Compare that with the 56 lakh total registered Covid deaths in the world now and the global under-reporting is stark.
When the entire process of disbursal of ex gratia is over, the final figure would decidedly be much more than the officially acknowledged Covid toll. It may not include, say, a small number in the upper crust who waive their right to compensation. Also, others like destitute victims may not be accounted for. Yet, the paid claims would bring us closer to purifying the datasets for a better epidemiological understanding of the situation. By design or otherwise, the ex gratia is an innovative tangential approach at collating the body count when states choose to live in denial, though those due to oxygen deprivation may never be fully tabulated.