On 27th April, the Allahabad High Court issued to a notice to Uttar Pradesh State Election Commission over the reported Covid-19 related death of around 135 teachers engaged in the recently concluded panchayat elections in the state. A Division Bench comprising of Justices Siddhartha Varma and Ajit Kumar blamed the state poll panel for the deaths during the panchayat polls, saying that it didn’t do anything to protect the people engaged in election duty.
“It appears that neither the police nor, Election Commission did anything to save the people on election duty from getting infected by this deadly virus,” the bench noted, and issued a notice to the State Election Commission asking to explain as to why it failed in checking non-compliance of Covid guidelines during various phases of the panchayat elections. The court also asked the Commission to show cause why action should not be taken against it and its officials for such violations.
The bench alleged that the UP govt was involved in other activities including the Panchayat elections instead of combatting the pandemic. The order said, “it is now an open secret that government had gone complacent due to weakening of virus impact by the end of 2020 in the state and the government got more involved in other activities including Panchayat elections.”
The court was hearing a public interest litigation after news reports saying that large number of teachers, shiksha mitras and Investigators, who were posted for the election duties, died due to Covid-19. While the reports has said that 135 persons have died, later the Teachers’ union in the state claimed that 577 persons died from Covid-19 while on panchayat election duties.
While the court is blaming the state poll panel and the state government for the deaths, left-liberals and Islamists are demanding the resignation of chief minister Yogi Adityanath.
Even though the High Court said that UP govt was more interested in polls instead of Covid-19, the fact is that the state government didn’t even want to conduct the polls, and it was forced to do so only due to an order by the same Allahabad High Court.
Allahabad High Court had ordered to conclude the polls by 30 April
On 4th February, a division bench of justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari and justice Rohit Ranjan Agarwal of the Allahabad High Court had ordered that the panchayat elections should be concluded by 30 April.
The elections were to be held in December last year as the term of the previous gram panchayats and village panchayat heads had expired on 25th December, but it was postponed due to the Covid-19 situation. On February, the poll panel had proposed to conclude the polls by May, but hearing a petition by a former village pradhan in Hathras district in UP, the court had rejected that scheduled and passed an order to conclude the polls by April 30.
The court had said, “as per the mandate of the Constitution, the election of the Panchayat should have been held on or before January 13, 2021,” and had said that they cannot accept the schedule given by Election Commission to complete the polls by May 2021.
Accordingly, the UP State Election Commission had announced a four-phase election for the panchayats in UP, which were scheduled on April 15, 19, 26 and 29, and the results are scheduled to be declared on 2nd May.
Allahabad High Court had dismissed a petition to postpone the panchayat polls
Not just the Allahabad High Court had ordered to complete the polls by April, it had also dismissed a petition seeking to postpone them when the Covid-19 cases had started to rise. On 7th April, a Division Bench comprising of Chief Justice Govind Mathur and Justice Saurabh Shyam Shamshery had refused to postpone the elections. Dismissing a petition, the bench had said that adequate health protocol for Covid-19 has been notified to be followed at the election booths, and therefore, there is no need to stall the electoral process. The petitioner had said that as there was a massive surge of Coronavirus cases in the state, it will lead to enormous injuries to the public, however, the court had refused the arguments.
A petition seeking an interim stay of the HC order was filed at the Supreme Court on 19th April, but the polls have already concluded before the matter was heard by the apex court on 30 April. The SC has issued to notice to the UP govt and the state election commission in this regard
It may be noted that UP had around 50,000 active cases on 7th April when the PIL was dismissed, up from around 5,000 on 7th February when the court had ordered the polls.
UP govt says it was forced by HC to conduct the polls
Following the criticisms of the state govt following the death of teachers during poll duties, the UP govt has also clarified that it was forced by the court to hold the elections. On 26th April, the UP govt said that it didn’t want to conduct the panchayat elections in the state in view of the coronavirus pandemic, but had to do so following the Allahabad high court’s order to conclude the polls by 30 April.
“The elections were due in December last year. The pandemic led to delay in reorganization and delimitation of panchayats. The writ petitions and subsequent decision of the high court compelled the state government to hold the election,” a state government spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said that the state government initiated the process of the election in compliance of the High Court order. The govt also said that the polls were conducted following all Covid-19 protocol issued by the election commission.
In hindsight, it can be said if the HC order to hold the polls by 30 April was not there and it was scheduled for May as proposed by the poll panel, the elections could have been postponed. India’s Covid-19 numbers were low in February when the HC had issued the order, but it started to rise from the end of March. Therefore, seeing the rise in Covid-19 numbers in many states including Uttar Pradesh, it would not have been difficult to reschedule the polls to a later date, but the poll panel was forced to hold the polls due to the High Court order.