India celebrated yesterday June 29, 2023, as National Statistics Day, coinciding with the birth anniversary of P. C. Mahalanobis.
As a recent paper by Pramit Bhattacharya shows, India’s statistical system has been on a decline, especially in the last decade. Since 2015, there have been controversies related to data on Gross Domestic Product, stalled investment projects, unemployment data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), data on sanitation, consumer expenditure survey, etc.
A most contentious situation is where the Union government remains adamant on a low number of deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, touting its success in managing the pandemic, despite every available piece of evidence and multiple studies showing the exact opposite.
Against this background, the statistical machinery of the Union government has failed so far to release the “Report on vital statistics of India based on the Civil Registration System” – CRS data.
Prior releases of this data have been a predictable schedule. In the past six years, only twice has this report been delayed beyond June. This is truly a vital report since it includes the officially recorded number of births and deaths in India.
The report for 2020, with months of lockdown and continued restrictions afterwards, was completed timely and released on May 3, 2022. In spite of a near-normal 2022 and 2023, there is no sign of the report for 2021.
CRS aggregates data from bottom up
Local government bodies maintain physical registers or digital records of births and deaths within their jurisdiction. While not all births and deaths are registered, government data shows that the rate of registration has improved over the past decade (see table below). Registration of death is a formal acknowledgement by the government and helps the next of kin in various situations such as inheritance and claiming life insurance.
As an administrative process, death registration requires evidence of death to be produced (e.g., a document from a hospital). CRS death data is therefore likely to indicate the minimum number of deaths in India (excluding deaths that go unrecorded). The data also includes important breakdowns – state-wise death counts, infant deaths, sex-wise numbers, time gap in registration, whether the death occurred in a hospital or other medical facility, etc.
|Report date||Year||Number of deaths (in lakhs)||Deaths recorded by gender||Institutional (in a medical facility)|
Source: ‘Executive Summary’ report on vital statics of India based on the Civil Registration System – 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 – available online here.
Death registrations and release of CRS data are usually timely
Per the 2022 CRS report (which covers deaths in 2020), death registration within 21 days was the norm. Eleven states and Union Territories registered 90% of their total deaths within 21 days. A further seven states and UTs registered more than 80% total deaths within 21 days. Seven states registered more than 50% of their total deaths within 21 days.
Only eight states exceeded the 21 day time limit for more than half the deaths registered. This was done in spite of the multi-month lockdown and restriction on movements in 2020.
While 2021 saw a severe second wave of COVID-19, restrictions of movement were eased by the second half of the year. We have seen a return to normalcy of operations in 2022 and 2023.
Prima facie, there is no reason for any state or Union Territory to delay reporting their data to the Union government. It is therefore unclear why the report for 2021 has not yet been released.
Are there some states that have not provided information to the Union government? Or are there delays in the Ministry of Home Affairs that the Office of the Registrar General is a part of?
CRS data for 2021 captures COVID-19 second wave
The Union government continues to be in a state of denial on the issue of COVID-19 deaths. The most up-to-date official number of COVID-19 deaths in India is 5.32 lakhs, as reported on the MyGov COVID-19 portal.
Experts from the WHO (which estimates more than 47 lakh excess deaths in India) as well numerous other studies have claimed that this is a significant undercount, perhaps by a factor of 10.
Source: Various research papers; graph generated by Mihir Mahajan.
The WHO estimates as well as some of the other studies use partial CRS data for 2021, released by individual local government bodies or state governments or obtained by journalists. These studies use statistical techniques to estimate excess deaths for the country based on excess deaths in the known sample, adjusting for differences in terms of demographic factors as well as for the time period of available data.
Release of the CRS data for 2021 is a key event. The data will show the extent to which these estimates match the actual numbers of registered deaths. With state-wise numbers, it will also allow benchmarking the performance of various states in handling the pandemic (some studies provide state-wise estimates).
The data will also provide a closer-t0-reality picture of the distress caused by COVID-19 across India.
One proxy for death counts in the CRS data is already available. The number of claims settled by life insurance companies for deaths during the financial year or FY 2021 were 10.84 lakhs (individual policies) and 10.92 lakhs (group policies).
Also read: Disbursal of Claims Under PMJJBY Rose by 438% In FY22, Reflecting Higher COVID Deaths in Second Wave
For FY 2022, these were 46% higher for individual policies at 15.87 lakhs and 29.9% higher for group policies at 14.18 lakhs. The estimated excess deaths for 2021 from the various studies are in the same range – about 30-50% over a normal year.
CRS data will also show how close this proxy is, since life insurance coverage may not be uniform across the population.
Looking ahead to Census 2021
There are no signs of when Census 2021, originally delayed on account of the pandemic, may be conducted. In 2023, India officially became the most populous nation of the world, on the basis of estimates. For the first time in 100+ years, we have no record of how many of us there actually are.
It has been more than a year since the Union home minister Amit Shah announced while inaugurating a newly-constructed census office in Assam that “the next Census will be an e-census that will be more scientific and 100% perfect.”
While photos from this event feature prominently on the front page of the Census website, there has been no indication of when the exercise might be conducted.
The delayed Census provides an opportunity to further assess the impact of the pandemic. Although CRS data will show registered deaths, India has historically struggled with getting all births and deaths registered.
While the government claims 90+% of death registration, many studies show that this is a substantial overestimate. Thus, a Census question that asks every household whether there was a death in the family in 2020 or 2021, and additional data such as age and gender of those who passed away, will help.
Since the Census reaches every household, such a question will enable identifying deaths that may not be captured in the CRS data.
Mihir Mahajan is Adjunct Fellow with the Takshashila Institution. This essay is independent of that affiliation.