India beset by govt's Covid-19 info shortage and lack of meaningful debate on crucial issues

The government said it did not have the data for the number of healthcare workers who had been infected by Covid-19 and died.
The government said it did not have the data for the number of healthcare workers who had been infected by Covid-19 and died.PHOTO: REUTERS

Since India's Parliament reopened on Sept 14 with social distancing measures, after five months of coronavirus-induced restrictions, its sessions have been anything but smooth sailing.

Howls of protest from opposition parties greeted the government's cancellation of Question Hour for parliamentarians to ask questions of ministers.

But few anticipated data shortages and absence of meaningful debate on crucial issues.

When asked important questions on the pandemic and the nationwide lockdown imposed since March 24, various ministries said they did not have the information.

On opening day of the new Parliament session, MPs from Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra asked the Labour Ministry for details of migrant workers who had returned home during the lockdown, those who had died during their journeys, and the compensation received by their families.

The ministry said nearly 10.5 million workers had left for home. But on the death numbers, it said "No such data was maintained" and so the question of compensation "does not arise".

The lockdown had prompted millions of migrant workers to flee the cities, often on foot, for their homes in the countryside. The magazine India Today had documented details of 238 migrant workers who died en route home.

The government also said it had no data on job losses among migrant workers. Likewise, it had no information about police personnel who had died from Covid-19.

When asked for the number of healthcare workers who had been infected by and died from the coronavirus, again, it said it did not have the data.

Instead it offered information on the families of 155 healthcare workers, including 64 doctors, who had sought life insurance payouts under a government scheme.

The day after the government's reply, an infuriated Indian Medical Association published a list of 382 doctors who had died of Covid-19, and demanded they "be acknowledged and treated as martyrs".

 
 
 

The association said a government that does not maintain data about healthcare workers "loses the moral authority" to administer laws to deal with the pandemic.

"To feign that this information does not merit the attention of the nation is abominable," it wrote.

  • 'No data on...'

  •  • Doctors' deaths during the Covid-19 outbreak

     • Police who have died from the disease

     • Migrant workers who lost their jobs during the health crisis

     • Number of small businesses that shut down during the pandemic

     • Plasma banks in India

On Saturday, various ministers claimed they had no data on crucial questions.

The Education Ministry, when asked, said it does not keep data of the number of student suicides during the lockdown.

Similarly, the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises had no data on the number of businesses that had shut down because of economic distress since March, or even on the number that had shut down since 2014 when the government first came to power.

When the Labour Ministry was asked for details of suicides by migrant workers, it said it was still collecting the information from state governments.

On Sunday, the government said it did not keep centralised data on the number of plasma banks treating Covid-19 patients.

"It is a new method of thwarting the right to information," said Mr Nikhil Dey, a transparency activist and co-founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan whose long campaign had led India to pass a law in 2005 granting citizens the right to information.

"If you don't collect inconvenient data, you don't need to provide information that might lead to accountability. Not to citizens and not to MPs," he added.

 
 

Amid the claims of having no data, the Parliament passed on Saturday three controversial laws on agriculture reforms by voice vote.

Many opposition leaders, calling this undemocratic, had asked for electronic voting as is normally done on robustly debated policies.

The parliamentary session ends on Oct 1, marking the last sitting for this year.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2020, with the headline 'India beset by govt's info shortage and lack of meaningful debate on crucial issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe