People have been returning in the thousands from cities to the villages to vote in the ongoing four-phase panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh. It is feared this movement of people may aggravate the crisis brought about by the second wave of the pandemic.
The Uttar Pradesh panchayat elections are being held in four phases, from April 15 to 29. Pic: Arvind Shukla/GC
Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh
During the COVID-19 second wave infections, with Uttar Pradesh reporting 30,000 new cases and 129 deaths in the last 24 hours, the second phase of panchayat elections is underway today in India’s most populous state. The panchayat elections are being held in four phases, from April 15 to 29. And, from across the country, people are making a beeline to their native villages to vote. These panchayat elections are possibly the world’s largest elections for electing representatives for village councils.
On April 14, a day before the first phase of the election, at 6 in the morning, 55-year-old Mohanlal, who works as a security guard in Haryana, was waiting at Charbagh bus stand in Lucknow, the state capital, after travelling by train. He was heading to his village Dalmau in Rae Bareli district for the panchayat elections. He was one of the thousands who have descended to their home state to vote for their acquaintances and relatives, unmindful of the pandemic and the risks associated with travelling from one place to another while the country registered.
Why did he travel at a time like this? “See, if we want to stay in the village, we must vote. I have come on four days’ leave. When Corona hit last year, I returned to the village and now managed to find another job in the city after great difficulty, so I’ll go back after voting,” Mohanlal told Gaon Connection.
Pratapgarh district goes to the polls today. Nitin Bansal, the District Collector, told Gaon Connection, “On April 15, we received orders from the Chief Minister for all returnee migrants to be screened for COVID-19 and those showing symptoms to be kept at the quarantine centre.”
Polling is already over in 18 districts, including Saharanpur, Ghaziabad, Rampur, Bareilly, Hathras, Agra, Rae Bareli and Bhadohi, in the first phase on April 15.
Polling is being held today, April 19, in places including Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Gautam Budh Nagar, Bijnor, Amroha, Chitrakoot and Azamgarh.
Twenty-eight-year-old Anil Kumar has come all the way from Mumbai with his wife and a year-old daughter in an unreserved train coach. His village is in Gorakhpur, and he had to wait a long time for a bus. “An acquaintance is contesting for the post of pradhan, and I am going there to vote for him,” he told Gaon Connection.
Is he not afraid of COVID-19? “There is more Corona in Bombay [Mumbai]. If everything goes well, after voting, we will head back,” he said.
After today’s panchayat elections, two more phases of elections are due to be held — on April 26 and 29.
This time, polling is open from 7 am to 6 pm to reduce crowding. “People have been informed they have to wear masks. Moreover, those with symptoms have been asked to vote at the end,” Collector Bansal added.
People under home quarantine or at hospital due to COVID-19 infection can also vote, provided their family members have informed the returning officer of the district in writing the day before voting.
According to the State Election Commission’s guidelines, voters with COVID-19 will have to don PPE (personal protection equipment) kits and cast their vote before commencement of voting. It will also be mandatory for the Sector Magistrate to wear PPE kits. The entire room will be sanitised after those who are COVID-19 positive cast their votes.
Meanwhile, a couple of days ago, on his social media account, Kaushal Kishore, the Bharatiya Janata Party MP (member of Parliament) from Mohanlalganj in Lucknow, appealed for postponement of panchayat elections in view of the growing pandemic.
Ironically, while returning migrant workers went to quarantine centres in 2020, this time around, they head home after travelling. The Chief Minister’s official Twitter handle, however, said that quarantine centres should be run in all districts as per COVID-19 protocol, and arrangements made for people’s food and accommodation.
“People return the most during the panchayat elections to show solidarity in relationships. Even two or four votes are crucial here. As always, people are coming to the village from outside, but this time it won’t do any good,” Chandrashekhar Pran, director of the Teesri Sarkar Campaign, which works for the empowerment of gram panchayats, told Gaon Connection.
“The most important thing in the election of pradhan is the candidate’s own background. A village is the host to various factions based on caste and creed. At the heart of these relationships is the communal feeling that runs deep through. In such a way, the election is also a matter of prestige,” Pran said.
Many voters are brought in by vehicles and sent back after the elections. Tickets are provided to returnees, Pran said.
Himanshu Tripathi, who runs coaching classes in Borivali in Mumbai, Maharashtra, returned to his village Mauaima in Prayagraj on April 8 to cast his vote. “My uncle is contesting the BDC [block development council] election, and I came with my wife and son risking the pandemic to give my family member support. Now that there is a mini lockdown in Mumbai, we are here for some more days,” Tripathi told Gaon Connection.
“Buoyed by the Kumbhmela and panchayat elections, the very infectious COVID-19 can spread like wildfire,” feared Ravi Duggal, a health rights activist.