P. Sainath/ People’s Archive of Rural India

Lucknow, UP: The number of school teachers who have died of COVID-19 after compulsory duty in Uttar Pradesh’s panchayat polls in the month of April is now 1,621 – including 1,181 men and 440 women – according to the updated list of the Uttar Pradesh Shikshak Mahasangh (teachers’ federation) and its affiliated unions. PARI has the full list here both in Hindi and in English.

On May 10, we published a story – see this piece – which laid out in stark detail how this man-made catastrophe happened. Both the State Election Commission (SEC) and the government of UP simply ignored the pleas of teachers’ unions repeatedly appealing for a postponement of the polls. At that time, the number of teachers who had done poll duty and died of COVID-19 stood at 713 – 540 men and 173 women school teachers.

This is a state with nearly 8 lakh teachers in government primary schools – tens of thousands of whom were sent out for poll duty. And an election of gigantic scale. With 1.3 million candidates contesting 8 lakh seats, and 130 million eligible voters, the polling officials (teachers and others) obviously had to interact with thousands of human beings, with few safety protocols actually in place.

UP’s panchayat elections have been deferred in the past – for instance, from September 1994 to April 1995. So, “Why this hurry amid an unprecedented pandemic and a humanitarian crisis staring at us?” asks former state election commissioner Satish Kumar Agarwal.

UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath has been dismissive of any connection between holding the elections and the deaths of the school teachers and other government employees. “Was there any election in Delhi? Did Maharashtra have an election?” he asked reporters in Noida on May 12. There have also been attempts to place the responsibility at the door of the Allahabad high court. As CM Adityanath put it to the reporters: “The panchayat elections were held as per the directions of the high court.”

This is only a partial truth. The court did reject a petition seeking postponement of the elections. That was a private petition, not one filed by the state. (By constitutional requirement, the panchayat elections should have been completed before January 21, 2021). But the court had ordered they be conducted with strictest adherence to COVID-19 protocols.

The Allahabad high court on April 6 said it believed the state would adhere to all safety protocols and that the UP government had in fact “already declared a protocol to be adhered during the election campaign.” It further ordered that “The Panchayat Raj Elections should also be conducted in such a manner that no congregation of people takes place. Be it nomination, be it canvassing or be it the actual voting, it should be seen that all COVID-19 protocols are observed.” In other words, the polls were not held “as per the directions of the high court.” The violations of those court directions were devastating to the teachers, say their unions.

“Even during a hearing by the honourable Supreme Court,” says the latest letter of the teachers’ unions to UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, “the federation had explained its position through its advocate. However, the government pleader had assured the honourable Supreme Court that guidelines for protecting people from Covid infections would be strictly followed during the counting of votes.”

In one heart-breaking sentence, the letter observes: “It is unfortunate that neither the Basic Education Department, nor the government of Uttar Pradesh, has till now expressed any feeling of grief at the deaths of teachers in such a large number.”

On April 26, the court issued notice to the SEC for “non-compliance” with those protocols, including face masking and social distancing that needed to be “religiously complied with.” If the government or SEC were unhappy with the court’s orders they could have gone in appeal to the Supreme Court. They did not. Even earlier, in the last week of March, the state had made no real effort to enforce CCOVID-19 protocols during the massive Holi celebrations in the state.

Importantly, the Allahabad high court on May 12 said the State must grant at least Rs 1 crore as ex-gratia compensation to the families of polling officers (teachers and other government employees) who died due to COVID-19 after duty in the panchayat polls. In the words of a division bench of Justices Siddhartha Varma and Ajit Kumar: “It is not a case that somebody volunteered to render his/ her services during election, but it was all made obligatory to those assigned with election duty to perform their duties during election even while they showed their reluctance.”

Also worth noting: no court in the country ordered or asked the governments of Uttarakhand or Uttar Pradesh to bring forward the Kumbh Mela by a year. The Kumbh Mela in Haridwar occurs every 12 years and the next one there was due in 2022. Yet, the Kumbh was the other major mass event, several days of which were observed in same period this year as the panchayat polls. There have been fervent astrological and religious rationalisations of the need to bring the Kumbh forward from 2022 to 2021. But very little discussion of the political need to ‘successfully’ hold the Kumbh Mela and the panchayat elections before the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections – scheduled for February-March next year – where these events, had they not proved so completely disastrous, could be cited as great achievements.

This article was originally published in the People’s Archive of Rural India on May 18, 2021.