Lucknow: The Rashtriya Shaikshik Mahasangh (RSM) – an RSS-affiliate union of teachers – threatened to boycott the counting of votes on Sunday, May 2, after 800 government employees allegedly died due to COVID-19 following their deputation to panchayat poll duty in Uttar Pradesh. The Karamchari Union and Prathmik Shikshak Sangh have also joined the boycott.
The RSM – an outfit of primary and secondary school teachers from Uttar Pradesh – has written to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and the State Election Commission (SEC) on Saturday, urging for the counting of votes be deferred till the COVID-19 improves. The earth will not fall down if they (government) delay the counting by a month or so and hold the same when the situation improves, the union claimed.
"Data collected by us till May 1 suggests that more than 800 employees, including teachers, shiksha mitras and education instructors have died so far after contracting COVID-19 while on duty during the panchayat polls in the state. Each passing day brings news of the death of our colleagues from every district. So far, Raebareli district has witnessed the highest number of deaths at 30. Similarly, 28 teachers in Lakhimpur Kheri have died (second-highest death toll) while 27 succumbed in Prayagraj and 23 each in Jaunpur and Gorakhpur. The most heart-wrenching incident is from Jaunpur where an eight-month pregnant assistant teacher and her baby died due to COVID-19 after she was forced to come for polling duty," Virendra Mishra, national spokesperson of the RSM, alleged, adding that more teachers would perish in the next week with the last phase of panchayat polls over on April 29.
Accusing the Yogi Adityanath-led UP government of "gross negligence" in conducting panchayat polls amid rising COVID-19 cases, the RSM national spokesperson told Newsclick: "We have no doubts that the government and the SEC are responsible for the death of our colleagues."
He added that an idea of how much "hypocrisy" was at play here could be gauged by the fact that the UP government "had moved the Supreme Court against the Allahabad High Court order directing it to impose strict restrictions in five cities till April 26 amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and used the same court order to conduct the panchayat polls," said Mishra, claiming that Election Commission has asked the union for a list of employees who had lost their lives to COVID-19. “We are compiling the list," he added.
The Supreme Court on Saturday given the green signal to counting for the panchayat elections on Sunday, after raising concerns over the COVID-19 surge and citing a petition from a teachers' body that said 700 teachers had died till the third phase of polls (April 26) while on poll duty.
Citing the steep rise in daily COVID-19 cases in the state, the top court had earlier asked the state election commission if it could delay the counting. "You want to proceed despite all odds? Heavens will not fall if counting is deferred by three weeks," the apex court said in a sharp remark.
Meanwhile, the fourth and final phase of elections ended on April 29. Over 5.27 lakh candidates were in the fray for more than 2.10 lakh seats across 17 districts in this round of the election. The polling was held in the districts of Ambedkar Nagar, Aligarh, Kushinagar, Kaushambi, Ghazipur, Farrukhabad, Bulandshahr, Basti, Bahraich, Banda, Mau, Mathura, Shahjahanpur, Sambhal, Sitapur, Sonbhadra and Hapur.
According to the SEC officials the first phase of polling held on April 15 saw an average polling percentage of 71% while the second phase on April 19 also saw over 71% polling. In the third phase of the polls held on April 26, a polling percentage of 73.5% was recorded and a turnout of 75.38% was recorded in the fourth and final phase.
‘YOGI GOVT LIED IN SUPREME COURT’
The RSM and Karamchari Union claimed that the UP government had lied in the Supreme Court about adhering to COVID protocols and "sanitising" frequently.
"The UP government lied before the Supreme Court. The government said it saw only eight hours of duty during polling but the reality is that we worked 12 hours at a stretch with no breaks and no medical facilities," Vinay Kumar Singh, president of the Primary Teacher Trained Graduate Association, adding that no protocols were followed by the government nor were safety equipment were provided.
"The government lied in Supreme Court. We worked tirelessly for 12 hours during election duty. There was no facility for sanitisation or safety by the government. We were left to die as if we do not have family members," Mishra said.
The union leader will raise the issue before National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The primary teachers' association had first raised the issue and asked for a postponement of the panchayat polls. On April 23 it had appealed to the Election Commission and the SEC for a postponement of the remaining two phases of the panchayat elections. The association had warned that the election could become a “super spreader" event given the surge in cases.
Giving their reasons for boycotting the counting exercise, the union said that a table measuring five to six feet would have four people sitting at it. "How anyone can follow social distancing and the COVID protocol," the union asked, adding that even during the panchayat training there were over 60 to70 teachers in one room. Soon after the training, many teachers started complaining about symptoms.
Earlier, on April 29, the Allahabad High Court took notice of a news item stating that 135 teachers, Shiksha Mitras and investigators, who were assigned election duty, had died due to COVID-19.
A bench of Justices Siddharth Varma and Ajit Kumar sent a notice to the SEC to explain why it had failed to check non-compliance of COVID guidelines during various phases of the panchayat elections held recently and why action should not be taken against it and its officials for the same.