False phone numbers, fake names: How Bihar Covid testing data got infected

The Indian Express travels across Jamui, Sheikhpura and Patna districts and tracks down nearly 600 entries shown as tested to find glaring gaps between what’s on paper — and what’s on the ground.

Over three days last month, three Primary Health Centres (PHC) in Bihar’s Jamui district tested 588 residents for Covid — all were negative. The name, age and cell number of each person tested was put down in a chart and sent to Patna where it was aggregated with data from other districts to plot the state’s downward Covid curve.

Staring out from these charts, however, are a string of glaring irregularities, an investigation by The Indian Express has revealed.

The Indian Express visited six PHCs in Jamui, Sheikhpura and Patna, and accessed their testing records for January 16, 18 and 25. In Jamui, it tracked down each of the 588 entries at three PHCs for those days, and spoke to several staffers to find that basic data protocol was bypassed in a scramble to meet the daily target — from fudged mobile numbers to fake names and dodgy entries. And, in some cases, to allegedly siphon off profits from unused testing kits.

Some of the key findings of the investigation from official records of tests carried out on those three days:

# Of 230 entries for Barhat in Jamui, only 12 entries were confirmed tested. At the Sikandara PHC in the district, only 43 of 208 entries were confirmed tested.

And in Jamui Sadar, only 65 of the 150 entries could be verified against data recorded.

# In Barhat, the cell number used against 14 entries and another for 11 entries tested on January 16 were both invalid. So was the case with another number used for 13 entries for testing on January 25. In Sikandara, cell numbers listed against 16 entries were found invalid.

# There is just one mobile number mentioned against as many as 26 who got the RT-PCR tests in Barhat. This number belongs to Baiju Rajak, a daily wager from Shambhuganj in Banka, about 100 km away. “I have no connection to any of these people, no one in my family has got tested for Covid,” Rajak said.

The 26 people with this number include: 11 men, six women and nine children. The names and numbers are being withheld to protect identities.

# Records in Sheikhpura district’s Barbigha of January 25 show that Sonali Kumari and Ajeet Kumar tested negative in a Covid test. But the phone number used for them belonged to Vijay Kumar, a sweets shop owner in UP’s Pratapgarh. “I do not know these people and I don’t have any Bihar connection. I have not taken any Covid test,” Kumar told The Indian Express.

Bihar was among the states hardest-hit by the pandemic with the return of over 20 lakh migrant workers as infections peaked in the middle of last year. The state has so far recorded 2,61,447 positive cases with 754 currently active, and 1,518 deaths linked to Covid.

While Patna tops the state’s Covid chart with over 52,000 cases so far, records from Jamui and Sheikhpura show how in several cases, the mobile numbers provided for those tested were owned by unrelated people from other districts or states. In some cases, multiple unrelated persons were listed under one number. In a few cases, numbers used were those of the PHC staffers themselves.

Dharmendra Kumar, a PHC staffer in Sheikhpura, said his phone number was used for six people on the test list of January 16. “I am not working in the Covid section but I am a staffer of the PHC. I have nothing to do with this,” he said.

According to state government guidelines, PHC personnel responsible for Covid testing are PHC accountants, PHC medical officers in-charge, block health managers, block account managers and district programme officers. The civil surgeon is in charge of all health schemes being run in a district.

“Since September, we have been filling most of the columns with any names and numbers we can access because we are under pressure to meet or get close to the daily target,” said a PHC staffer in Jamui who spoke on the condition that he not be named.

Records for January 16 show that the mobile number of Dilip Das, a daily wager from Bath village of Asarganj in Munger district, was used for 22 entries. Das says he does not know any of them. “I am not related to any of those 21 on the list. I have no idea how my number is being used,” he said.

Sandeep Kumar, a student from Lakshmipur, Jamui, was “so surprised” to know that his number was used for 19 entries on January 25 while Kiran Devi, a homemaker, has “no idea” how her number was used for 13 entries on January 16.

Kapildeo Ravidas, a teacher at a local school, was “shocked” to learn that his number was used for 10 entries on January 25. “Since we have been part of several government initiatives, the PHC must have taken it from the block database. I will lodge a complaint with the Jamui civil surgeon,” he said.

The list for January 16 also shows that one Mohammed Riyasat took Antigen and RT-PCR tests on January 18. But the phone number used was that of Satendra Yadav, a daily wager from Barachatti in Gaya. “I was tested for Covid in Barachatti over a month ago. I have no idea how a Jamui PHC has got his number,” said Yadav.

The PHC used the cell number of Anil Pandey, a marginal farmer from Bathu village of Sultanganj, for tests done for three persons who could not be traced. “I keep getting messages from the Health department from time to time. Now I realise that my number is being misused,” he said.

When apprised of these discrepancies, Jamui District Programme Manager (DPM) Sudhanshu Lal said: “We have received some complaints of Covid test data fudging. We have also withheld the salary of the Barhat PHC medical officer on-charge. We will initiate action against any official found guilty in our investigation.”

Sheikhpura DPM Shyam Kumar Nirmal said: “In the initial stages, several patients did not give their correct numbers. But we will find out how an Uttar Pradesh number was used.”

Speaking to The Indian Express, Pratayaya Amrit, Principal Secretary, Bihar Health Department, said: “We will get this investigated at all levels. We are asking civil surgeons to explain how such things are happening. We are also proposing to link such tests to Aadhar. We are introducing this system for the Covid vaccination”.

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