By Sumit Khanna
AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) - When COVID-19 infections peaked in India in April and May last year, the western city of Ahmedabad officially recorded at least three times as many total deaths in those two months than in the same period in the previous two years, government data showed.
The data, provided by Ahmedabad's local administration to a public-information activist and shared with Reuters on Thursday, does not give the cause of those deaths, but it appears to bolster claims of many health experts that India heavily undercounted COVID-19 fatalities.
The numbers show the city of 8 million reported 30,427 deaths in April and May of 2021, compared with an average of 8,337 in the previous two years for that period. Gujarat's health ministry data shows fewer than 1,000 COVID-19 deaths occurred in those two months last year.
Ahmedabad is the largest city in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat, which has recorded 10,942 COVID-19 fatalities since the start of the pandemic, though it has approved at least 87,000 compensation claims linked to COVID-19 deaths.
"I have been given the data after a prolonged legal battle," said the activist, Pankaj Bhatt. "This itself shows that the authorities were trying to hide something and did not want to reveal the real picture or the scale of the tragedy."
One Gujarat health official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied any attempts to suppress the actual COVID-19 toll. The state's health secretary, Manoj Aggarwal, declined to comment.
Many Indians died at home, in parking lots and on the way to the hospital when a dramatic rise in cases from around March last year led to massive shortages of medical oxygen, ambulance and hospital beds in cities like Ahmedabad and New Delhi.
India has so far reported 43 million infections - second only to the United States - and around 521,000 deaths. Only the United States, Russia and Brazil have reported more deaths.
Some public health experts, however, have estimated India's death toll at more than 3 million. The federal government has repeatedly appealed to state authorities to update their data as warranted, while rejecting claims of massive under-counting as "ill-informed and speculative".
(Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)