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Over 700 teachers in UP succumbed to COVID contracted during election duties, should the panchayat elections not have been postponed?
PARI (People’s Archive of Rural India) Network recently shared a report that in the panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh that took place in April, over 700 government school teachers who were assigned poll duties contracted the coronavirus and succumbed to it. A teacher’s wife spoke of how her husband got summons from the Govt to return to his post even as he was in the hospital, fighting for his life.
And these reports are just a tiny fraction of such elections related COVID deaths that must have certainly happened. The second wave has been wreaking havoc all over the country, and the various elections all over the country were fertile ground.
This article focuses on the case in UP, while calling out all such deaths, a direct result of the flouting of basic guidelines.
As news of COVID deaths are ever on the rise, the failure of the Election Commission is becoming more and more apparent. After Madras High court admonished the election commission for their hand in the spread of the COVID-19 second wave, the Allahabad High Court, too, issued a notice to UP State Election Commission to show cause for non-compliance of Covid guidelines during the panchayat elections.
The brunt of EC’s outright flouting of COVID guidelines had to be borne by the people, in UP particularly the polling officials. The Panchayat elections in UP were conducted in four phases from April 15th to April 29th. The results were declared on 2nd of May. The Teachers’ Union shared that in this short span of time, over 700 teachers who were deployed as polling officials lost their lives to Covid.
The death toll, the lack of protections and the failure to implement guidelines were brought to the notice of the EC on numerous occasions. The UP Shikshak Mahasangh wrote to the election commissioner as early as 12th of April warning the state the risks involved in undertaking this gargantuan operation at such a critical juncture.
On 28th and 29th April, they again wrote to the EC and the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh to urge them to defer the counting date as the death toll had already touched 700. Their pleadings fell on deaf ears.
The current full list of teachers, both men and women, who lost their lives due to irresponsibility and inflexibility of election procedures numbers 713. Among the victims there were individuals with disability and fresh recruits who haven’t even received the salaries of their first month.
Not very surprisingly, women are disproportionately affected in such circumstances. While 173 female teachers lost their lives due to COVID, women who were dependent on the incomes of the male members of their families who succumbed to COVID they contracted during poll duties, too, are facing the consequences of conducting the election during a pandemic. The female teachers instructed to conduct election duties are forced to work in conditions unsuitable for working long hours without infrastructure. And if this work is allotted during a pandemic, the circumstances worsen considerably.
The Uttar Pradesh Prathmik Shiksha Sangh’s Associate President Dinesh Chandra Sharma holds the view that “many of these lives could have been saved had the SEC taken note of our April 12 letter in which I pointed out that Covid protocol was not being followed during training.”
After the Allahabad High Court took cognisance of the deaths due to COVID among polling officials, the UP government has announced compensation of ₹30,00,000 lakh for the bereaved families. But though 700+ individuals lost their lives, the SEC counsel Tarun Agarwal informed the court of only 77 of the reported cases. Compensation, too, seems to be a tall order to hope for from this government.
There also seems to be a lot of passing the back happening. The Adityanath government says that the court left them no option but to conduct the election, and the court admonishes them for the high death rates. All this while the bereaved families are denied justice.
The panchayat elections could have easily been deferred to a time in the future more suitable and safer for election purposes, while those in power currently could have acted as interim officials, instead of the en masse, unnecessary exposure of people to COVID.
It is not just the polling officials and the candidates who are being exposed to the virus, voters, too, run a great risk. At a time when no one ought to remove their masks in public or flout any of the guidelines for one’s own safety, as well as others’, the voting procedure involves various activities, from mass gathering outside booths to providing identity proof, that run the risk of possible taking off of the mask, exposing voters to other infected individuals.
The state of India in undertaking and promoting a religious event of mass scale like the Kumbh mela and conducting elections that could have very well been postponed, put the nation’s population in jeopardy.
In addition to teachers in Uttar Pradesh, poll officers in all of the legislative assembly elections, too, found their safety compromised. Over 70 paramilitary personnel were infected by mid April in Bengal, while voting in two assembly seats had to be deferred due to deaths of the candidates.
As the courts pointed out, this situation the country finds itself in today could have been averted only if the elections were postponed. The least the state can do now is show accountability and compensate the families, while ensuring vaccine equality and strict implementation of guidelines to ensure that the citizens are not pushed to insecure situations anymore.
Image source: YouTube
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An undergraduate student of Political Science at Presidency University, Kolkata. Describes herself as an intersectional
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