How many people died in India due to the Covid-19 pandemic? It’s a question that is not settled and makes the government furious whenever a figure much higher than the official estimate is suggested by an independent body. Latest to cause fury is an article in the New York Times titled India Is Stalling the W.H.O.’s Efforts to Make Global COVID Death Toll Public that made the government respond. The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare responded with a Press Information Bureau release, giving a dressing down to NYT, claiming that the methodology used by the WHO to arrive at their estimates was ‘flawed’, and that India had brought up this issue with the global health authority on multiple occasions.
So far so good. But even a cursory reading of the health ministry’s press release will reveal that it is a mediocre and shabby job on three counts.
First, there is nothing new in this reference to the gap between the reported and the actual Covid death toll. Other independent studies, of which there are at least five across the world, have come up with similar numbers in the ballpark of four million Covid-19 related deaths in India in the two years of the pandemic. A paper published in the medical journal Lancet in March 2022 also estimated that India’s actual Covid death toll between January 2020 and December 2021 is around four million more than the official numbers. Furthermore, the authors of the Lancet study found that of the 191 countries they looked at, India had the highest number of excess mortalities. Yet, India continues to be in denial mode.
Second, instead of giving the real picture or alternative estimate, obtained through rigorous science or fool-proof methodology, the rejoinder indulges in nit-picking and banal arguments. Typical is this counter: “India has been in regular and in-depth technical exchange with WHO on the issue. The analysis while uses mortality figures directly obtained from Tier–I set of countries, uses a mathematical modelling process for Tier II countries (which includes India). India’s basic objection has not been with the result (whatever they might have been) but rather the methodology adopted for the same.”
Third, it looks as if this response was written in a hurry, which is strange for a communication of global significance. The rejoinder to a prestigious newspaper like NYT wasn’t even proofread. Also, the letter doesn’t achieve its intended impact because it’s not clear about what it wants to say. Sentences are convoluted and complex, arguments are inaccessible. While the WHO report looks professional, a country like India has responded with an unconvincing and knee-jerk retort written in bad English. Take this gem for instance: “The concern specifically includes on how the statistical model projects estimates for a country of geographical size & population of India and also fits in with other countries which have smaller population.”
Incidentally, this communication was issued within a few days of the diktat of Union home minister Amit Shah that people from different states should speak in Hindi, not English. At the 37th meeting of the Parliamentary Official Language Committee, he proclaimed it in no uncertain terms: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided that the medium of running the government is the Official Language, and this will definitely increase the importance of Hindi. Now the time has come to make the Official Language an important part of the unity of the country. When citizens of States who speak other languages communicate with each other, it should be in the language of India.”
Ever since Shah took over as home minister, he has been consistently pushing for greater use of Hindi by officials and the youth, and has said that India’s culture and value systems had remained protected primarily because of the language. Having realised that the hard-Hindutva polarisation agenda is running out of steam, he has taken up the Hindi-divisive agenda in an aggressive manner. In 2019, delivering his first speech on the language on Hindi Diwas, he had pushed for the idea of ‘One nation, one language’, saying: “India is a country of different languages. Every language has its own importance. But it is absolutely essential that the entire country has one language that becomes the identity of the nation in the world. If there is any language that can tie the whole country in one thread, it is the most spoken language of Hindi.” Shah has also been categoric that Hindi should be accepted as an alternative to English and not any other local language.
With such stringent direction and diktat, no wonder officials working in the central government are scared of learning, conversing and writing in English. They are in a hurry to adopt 100 per cent Hindi in communication with other departments in the Union government as well as with state governments. With the political bosses at the highest level pushing and promoting Hindi as a polarisation agenda for political purposes, officials are keen to dump English as hurriedly as possible. There is no incentive whatsoever for them to improve their knowledge and drafting skills in this language. Actually, they are faced with punishment and penalties.
Added to this is the sharp fall in the standards of English across schools and colleges over a period of time that has severely impacted even the officers of the IAS and central services who occupy senior positions in the Union government. In fact, a former director of the National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie (who is MA in English Literature) once told me that the standard of English among IAS probationers was so low, he had to take special classes for many of them in grammar and sentence structuring!
It is but natural that the ailment that has affected communication within the nation is bound to afflict international correspondence unless drafted by competent individuals in the Ministry of External Affairs. Hence the shabby and sub-standard missive, “In response to New York Times article titled “India Is Stalling the WHO’s Efforts to Make Global Covid Death Toll Public dated 16th April, 2022”.
There is another important factor contributing to the low standard of officials in central government. Postings and appointments in key positions are no longer on the basis of merit or performance but paying obeisance to certain cult-personalities or ideology. It is a universal fact that yes-men can never be men of calibre and substance. Hence, the all-pervading mediocrity which is now manifesting in many fields.
M.G. Devasahayam is a retired IAS officer and chairman of People-First. He also served in the Indian Army. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)