“My Covid-19 report said I was negative, but I hadn’t got tested. I went to local district authorities, but I was told to go away. Health department officials were also not interested in finding out what was going on. As a last resort, I filed an email complaint with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR),” Mittal told TOI on Tuesday.
The apex body responded that it would investigate the matter. But when Mittal still hadn’t heard from them in a week, he filed a Right To Information (RTI) application, seeking details of the lab that had conducted his “test”.
The ICMR looked into the case and found that Mittal’s swabs had been “collected and tested in Haridwar”. It forwarded Mittal’s complaint to the Uttarakhand health department. A detailed probe — running into 1,600 pages and accessed by TOI on Monday— revealed that Mittal’s was just one among one lakh Covid test reports that were forged by a Haryana-based agency.
The “tests” were supposedly conducted between April 1 and 30 during the Kumbh festival after the Uttarakhand high court ordered the state to conduct at least 50,000 daily tests in Haridwar. The investigation found that names and addresses were fake. Several people shared the same phone number and antigen test kits meant for one-time use. Students and residents of Rajasthan who had never been to Kumbh were shown as sample collectors. The state had conducted a total of four lakh tests in Haridwar during the mela period with the help of eight sample collection agencies. The other agencies are also under scanner now.
“When I made the complaint, I didn’t expect that the scam was at this scale. I don’t think anyone could have expected this,” said Mittal. He, however, added that while the spotlight is on fake Covid reports, he will continue seeking answers for theft of his data. “How did the agency get my personal details? I still don’t know,” he said.
When asked about the fake test reports, joint secretary, health ministry, Lav Agarwal, said, “The state was proactive in calling sample collection agencies through its control room to conduct a preliminary inquiry. A week ago, the Haridwar district magistrate was asked to submit an action-taken report to find those involved.”
Agarwal said that the “exact number of fake tests would be determined after inquiry has ended.” He said he had spoken to the state’s health secretary and the inquiry report is likely to be submitted in a week or so. “Those involved will be held responsible and criminal action taken wherever required,” he said.
Experts, meanwhile, said this was likely the “largest scam in Covid testing in the country” and added that the very low positivity rate in Haridwar should have raised suspicions. “The extraordinarily low positivity rate in Haridwar district during the course of the Kumbh mela was questionable. But authorities turned a blind eye,” said Anoop Nautiyal, member of Social Development for Communities Foundation, an organisation closely tracking the Covid-19 scenario in Uttarakhand.
In April, the positivity rate in Haridwar was 2.8% on average, while the positivity rate in other 12 districts was 14.2% on average.
“We have been asking for all Covid-related data from the Kumbh mela area to be made public. But we never got a clear picture. We demand that an independent agency should probe the scam,” Nautiyal said.
(With inputs from Ambika Pandit)