U.P. panchayat elections turned deadly for those on duty

Polls were held in 4 phases with 12.96 crore registered voters and over 2 lakh voting booths even as COVID-19 infections were peaking

April 29, 2021 08:25 pm | Updated 08:25 pm IST - LUCKNOW:

Voters stand in a queue to cast their votes in Uttar Pradesh Panchayat Election in Mathura.

Voters stand in a queue to cast their votes in Uttar Pradesh Panchayat Election in Mathura.

Ram Krishna Pandey feels his father Pankaj Pandey’s death could have been averted had the Uttar Pradesh panchayat polls been postponed keeping in mind the second wave of COVID-19. Pankaj Pandey, a head clerk with the Basic Education Department in Pratapgarh, died on April 26 after suffering from COVID-19-related complications and a drop in his oxygen levels. While the disease got his father, Mr. Ram Krishna blames the situation in which his father was forced to work. “He died because of the election,” said Mr. Ram Krishna, a graduation student in Allahabad University. “The election should not have taken place now. It could have been delayed or held along with the Bihar polls last year.”

Like thousands of teachers in the State, Mr. Ram’s father was also assigned polling duty in the three-tier panchayat polls, voting for which concluded on Thursday. The numbers explain the massive scale of the polls: 12.96 crore registered voters and over 2 lakh voting booths and 80,762 voting centres spread across the State in four phases during the peak of the coronavirus infections. Over 2.43 lakh officials and staff were assigned duties for the polls, according to the State Election Commission (SEC).

Pankaj Pandey started to display symptoms, cough and depleting oxygen levels two days after he returned from polling duty, his family said. He was first treated at a private hospital but since he did not get relief, his family shifted him to a major public hospital in Prayagraj, and he died on April 26. He leaves behind his son, wife, and daughter, whose marriage is scheduled for July 11.

Mr. Ram Krishna says his father had tested negative earlier and was fine before joining polling duty in the Bihar block of the district.

While coming down heavily on the State government, the Allahabad High Court on April 27 issued notice to the U.P. SEC to explain the non-compliance of COVID-19 guidelines during the panchayat polls after taking note of the death of 135 teachers, Shiksha Mitras and investigators, who were assigned to election duty in the ongoing panchayat polls and had tested positive. Various teacher unions in the State estimate that the number of teachers and teaching staff who died due to COVID-19 after being exposed to infection on polling duty to be anywhere between 550 to 1,000. They hold the U.P. SEC and the government responsible for the deaths.

Mahendra Nath Rai, secretary of the 65,000-member U.P. Madhyamik Sikshak Sangh, Chandel faction, said 1,000 teachers, from primary to higher education and university levels, died due to the virus during the polls. “This obstinacy to conduct the polls was not in the interest of the society or the State. Life is more important than elections,” said Mr. Rai, demanding that the polling procedure, counting for which is scheduled on May 2, be immediately stalled to prevent further loss of lives.

Mr. Rai said the guidelines issued by the court and the SEC for the polls were impractical in densely-populated U.P. “It was the High Court which decided to hold the polls in the first place. When basic needs of people are not being fulfilled by successive governments, how can they provide masks and sanitisers to everyone when there is no production and availability in the market?” asked Mr. Rai.

The bereaved are dealing with their loss with a sense of anger. Lawyer Satyam Rai’s father Pankaj Rai, a school principal, died on April 24 after serving in the panchayat polls’ second phase in Azamgarh. Mr. Satyam says his father did due to the “poor state of government hospitals” and the culpability of the SEC.

Pankaj Rai was first admitted to a private hospital with a dry cough and breathing problems but he had to be shifted to the government District Hospital as the private hospital, a non-COVID-19 facility, claimed it was not getting any oxygen cylinders from the administration. The hospital asked the family to arrange two cylinders per day if they were to treat him, the family said. At the government hospital, the ailing man had to face interruptions in oxygen supply and alleged negligence by the staff, his son said. “At 3 a.m., the oxygen supply got over and it was restored only at 6.30 a.m. I begged everyone there, from the ward boy to the sweeper, but no staff was available to restore the oxygen even though the hospital storeroom had oxygen cylinders. At 6.30 a.m., when the staff finally came, they asked me to get the cylinder myself. With the help of another patient’s attendant, we got the cylinder on a stretcher to the emergency ward and it took 20 minutes to set it up,” said Mr. Satyam. The oxygen supply was interrupted again the next day. His father died two days later.

Mr. Satyam blames the SEC for not deferring the polls despite the surge in cases. He now hopes that the poll body will postpone the counting, when large gatherings of candidates and supporters are the norm, to prevent further spread of the infection.

Rama Shankar Shukla, Pratapgarh president of the Prathmik Shikshak Sangh, says the migration of people from cities and their return home for voting in the locally crucial panchayat polls pushed the infection to the villages. The polling agents first conducted two-three training sessions in villages and then travelled to other districts for polling duty, he pointed out.

Mr. Shukla said it was impractical to expect social distancing in voting queues. “Some people wear masks, while the rest leave it on the almighty,” he said. While there was a “horrid” situation in hospitals, the entire machinery of the administration was involved in the elections, Mr. Shukla complained.

According to U.P. Police, in just the fourth phase of voting on Thursday in 17 districts, it had deployed 375 inspectors, 7456 Sub Inspectors, 15,049 Head Constables, 54,020 Constables, 66,444 Home Guards, 2,212 PRD (Prantiye Raksha Dal) Jawans, 4,776 recruit constables, 51 PAC (Provincial Armed Constabulary) companies, and 10 companies of the Central Armed Police Forces on polling duty. As on April 24, State police said 2,241 personnel were COVID-19 positive and 97 had died so far.

Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav demanded that the State government hand out a compensation of ₹50 lakh each to the kin of officials, teachers and staff who died due to COVID-19 on election duty.

Ved Prakash Verma, Additional Election Commissioner, U.P., did not take calls to confirm if the poll body had made it mandatory for agents and candidates to test negative to be able to assemble near the counting centres on result day.

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