Police personnel wearing a Covid-19 coronavirus-themed helmets, shields and battons stand in formation as they take part in awareness campaign against the pandemic at a traffic junction in Hyderabad on June 9, 2021. (Photo by NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images)

AN Indian state has raised its Covid-19 death toll sharply higher after the discovery of thousands of unreported cases, lending weight to suspicion that India‘s overall death tally is significantly more than the official figure.

According to health ministry figures, 6,148 people died in the previous 24 hours, taking total fatalities to almost 360,000, the world’s third highest.

The previous world record according to an AFP tally was 5,527 in the US on February 12, although this was also due to an upwards revision of earlier deaths.

On Wednesday (9), the eastern state of Bihar hiked its death toll by around 4,000 to almost 9,500 after reviewing death records, officials said.

India has the second-highest tally of Covid-19 infections in the world after the US, with 29.2 million cases and 359,676 deaths, according to health ministry data.

The newly reported deaths in Bihar had occurred last month and state officials were investigating the lapse, a district health official said, blaming the oversight on private hospitals.

“These deaths occurred 15 days ago and were only uploaded now in the government portal. Action will be taken against some of the private hospitals,” said the official, who declined to be identified as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

Health experts say they believe both coronavirus infections and deaths are being significantly undercounted across the country partly because test facilities are rare in rural areas, where two-thirds of Indians live, and hospitals are few and far between.

Bihar’s high court in Patna demanded an audit of the figures after allegations that the local government was hiding the scale of infections and deaths.

Bodies in the Ganges river

As crematoriums struggled to handle the wave of deaths over the past two months, many families placed bodies in the holy Ganges river or buried them in shallow graves on its sandbanks.

Those people would likely not have been registered as Covid victims.

“Under-reporting is a widespread problem, not necessarily deliberate, often because of inadequacies,” Rajib Dasgupta, head of the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Reuters.

“In the rural context, whatever states may say or claim, testing is not simple, easy or accessible,” Dasgupta said.

Overall, India‘s cases and deaths have fallen steadily in the past weeks after a surge from mid-March.

The New York Times estimated deaths based on death counts over time and infection fatality rates and put India‘s toll at 600,000 to 1.6 million.

The government dismissed those estimates as exaggerated. But the main opposition Congress party said that other states must follow Bihar’s example and conduct a review of deaths over the past two months.

“This proves beyond a doubt government has been hiding COVID deaths, ” said Shama Mohamed, a spokeswoman for Congress, adding that an audit should also be ordered in the big states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.