India’s drive to vaccinate a world record 25 million people in 24 hours on prime minister Narendra Modi’s birthday last week is being scrutinised amid reports of data irregularities and apparently fake certificates being issued.
In the central state of Madhya Pradesh, which is governed by Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, several cases were reported by local media where people were sent Covid vaccine certificates on 17 September for jabs they never received.
One extreme case saw Ashutosh Sharma, a resident of Aagar-Malwa district, receive a message on his phone stating that his mother had successfully received her second Covid dose that day. Mr Sharma told broadcaster NDTV his mother had died, from Covid, some four months earlier.
India’s system of vaccine certification is handled online through the government-run CoWIN portal, where members of the public can book vaccine appointments and where medical service providers and officials register jabs once delivered.
The government has closely linked vaccinations to Mr Modi’s personal brand, with each individual certificate issued in the country of 1.3 billion people bearing his image. The day before the vaccine drive, the country’s health minister Mansukh Mandaviya called on the public to turn out on 17 September and “get our family and community vaccinated as a gift to the PM”.
In Madhya Pradesh at least, Mr Sharma said he believed local officials were likely trying to inflate the figures by any means necessary. “I have her (my mother’s) death certificate in one hand and her vaccination certificate in another,” he said. “I think a lot of pressure is being put on the officials, to increase the numbers.”
After NDTV reported this and several other cases of incorrectly-issued certificates, Madhya Pradesh state health minister Vishwas Sarang did not deny that there had been mistakes, but put these down to “clerical errors”. “There may be one or two cases, it will be investigated if there is any clerical,” he said.
There were also reports of irregularities from Bihar, however, a state led by a BJP-backed alliance and which reported the highest number of vaccinations of any state on 17 September.
Indian news website Scroll cited several local officials, who asked not to be named, as saying that they felt pressured into recording vaccinations on Mr Modi’s birthday that were actually administered across several days beforehand. Data entry operators reportedly told the website they “were under tremendous pressure to perform”.
A spokesperson for the main opposition Congress party, Supriya Shirnate, accused the BJP of manipulating the vaccine drive “for their headline management”.
“India needs vaccination,” she told The Hindu newspaper. “We have double-vaccinated only 13 per cent of our population. There are 113 nations who are ahead of us. Why should we wait for this one day to have record vaccination?”