The family members of the teachers, who allegedly died of COVID19 following poll duty in the Uttar Pradesh panchayat elections, are grieving, angry, and apprehensive of the bleak future that awaits them. A Gaon Connection report.
There is a pall of gloom. Incomprehension, shock and grief chase one another on the faces of the family members of the government school teachers who have died in the past two months in Uttar Pradesh. They claim it was the poll duty for the panchayat elections in the state held during the second wave of the pandemic that killed their near and dear ones. There are tears of grief, despair and anger.
The last time Sandhya Rathore spoke to her husband Ramkaran Rathore was on April 29, the fourth phase of the panchayat polls. “My husband taught at Composite Vidyalaya in Rehariya village in Sindhauli block of Shahjahanpur. He left home for election duty at Feel Nagar, twenty five kilometres away on April 28,” Sandhya, a resident of Shahjahanpur, told Gaon Connection.
According to her, 60-year-old Ramkaran, after the day’s work, deposited the ballot box and collapsed right there. The next morning, on April 30, when Sandhya called her husband’s mobile, someone picked up and informed her that he was ill.
“When we got there we saw him lying unconscious on the floor of the polling booth, frothing at the mouth,” she described. They rushed him to a hospital in Shahjahanpur. But on May 10, Ramkaran died, not having spoken another word,” Sandhya said.
The Uttar Pradesh panchayat elections 2021, were held in four phases, between April 15 and April 29. The results were announced on May 2. The campaigning, voting and counting took place in the peak of the second wave of the COVID 19 pandemic and was dogged by controversy with the state government, the state election commission and the Allahabad High Court locking horns and shifting the blame.
Meanwhile, a state-level teachers’ association has released a list of at least 1,621 government school teachers, who, it asserts, died of COVID19 following poll duty at the panchayat elections. But, the state government has refuted these allegations. Gaon Connection was unable to independently verify the association’s assertion.
In its press statement, the basic education department of the state government has clarified only three teachers died during the panchayat polls. This has enraged the association members, who are raising resources to support the families of the dead teachers.
“On April 13, my husband went for a training session for election duty. He was to report for the first phase of the polls on April 15,” Subuhi Rauf, a resident of Katiya Kammu from Shahjahanpur district, a teacher herself, told Gaon Connection. Her 44-year-old husband Salim Ahmed was principal at the Katiya Kammu school, Bhawal Kheda.
Soon after, Subuhi Rauf said, her husband fell ill with fever and breathing difficulty. He was in home isolation and finally succumbed on May 2.
“Whatever the official statistics may declare, my husband was infected with coronavirus during the training session,” Rauf insisted. Ahmed has left behind two children, a son aged 16 and a daughter aged 13, for her to raise single handedly now, she wept.
Asharam Pal’s case was startlingly similar. Posted at the Prathamik Vidyalay, Bakharpur in Jaitipur, in Shahjahanpur district, he too went for a training workshop to Shahjahanpur town on April 11, before his election duty on April 29 at Nigohi.
Almost immediately after Asharam returned from the training workshop, he had a fever, but did not pay much attention to it, Om Pal, his brother told Gaon Connection. “However, he attended another training session on April 26 after which his condition really deteriorated,” Om Pal said.
Asharam was rushed to Gangasheel Hospital in Bareilly where tests were done and he tested positive for COVID 19, informed his brother. The 37-year-old teacher never recovered, and died on May 2. He is survived by his wife, a 15-year-old son, a five-year-old daughter, and aging parents. All of them were dependent on him, said Om Pal.
“It is unacceptable; very painful,”Ashish Kumar Shukla, who lost his wife, a school teacher, told Gaon Connection. He said it was a travesty that the UP government still maintained that only three teachers died in the course of election duty in the state.
Sunita Shukla, his wife, was three months pregnant, and while she should not have been on the list of people detailed for duty, she was.
On April 25, Sunita, an assistant teacher at a higher secondary school at Para Khandauli, Barabanki, went to Bankota to get her name struck off the reserve list for election duty.
“On her return, she fell ill almost immediately. I took her to Lucknow where after many hospitals refused to take her in, one doctor advised us to go to a hospital that had ventilators as she definitely needed one,” Shukla recalled painfully.
But, on the way there Sunita died and with her, her unborn child. “She was fine. Since schools were shut, she was at home and safe. Had there been no panchayat elections, there would not be so many cases. And you would not be here, interviewing us,” Shukla said. Sunita leaves behind a nine-year-old son.
The fact that so many teachers and teaching staff lost their lives soon after the election duty they were put on, is difficult to ignore.
“I would like the government to look my children in the face and tell them that only three teachers died of COVID19 in the course of their duty during the panchayat elections,” sobbed Seema Varma.
Seema’s husband Jayant Varma, the sole breadwinner, was an instructor at the Junior High School in Bachwal village, Maholi block of Sitapur. The 38-year-old died on April 28, while on his way to election duty at a polling centre in Reusa block. He leaves behind his wife, two daughters who are 10 and 8 years old respectively, and a five-year-old son. “With my husband gone, my world is shattered,” she said.
Besides grief, the families are worried. In many of the cases, the people who died were the only earning members of the family. With them gone, the future for them looks frighteningly bleak. There are loans to be repaid, fees to be deposited and the health of the elderly dependents to be considered.
“Since my brother died, things at home are so bad that there are times when dark thoughts enter my head,” Shailendra Mishra told Gaon Connection.
Shailendra’s older brother, Arunoday Prakash Mishra left home in Mohalla Kayasthan, Tilhar tehsil of Shahjahanpur, for election duty on April 28. The following day, while on duty at a school in Okhali, the 52-year-old complained of breathlessness and was removed from election duty.
“We could not find a hospital that would take him in and he died on April 30,” Shailendra said.
A couple of days later, on May 11, 47-year-old Pramod Kumar Pandey, who taught in Jalalpur died in Shahjahanpur district hospital. “On May 2, he presented himself for election duty at Nigohi in Tilhar tehsil. He was a counting supervisor,” Shyam Kumar Mishra, his brother-in-law told Gaon Connection.
Soon after Pramod began to feel unwell and on May 6, he was admitted to the district hospital in Shahjahanpur, where on May 11, he breathed his last, narrated the brother-in-law. Pramod Pandey leaves behind three children.
The state-level teachers’ association solely blames the panchayat elections for the death of 1,621 teachers in the state.
“The training sessions for election duty began around April 12, and by the time the counting of votes and results were announced, there was a spate of deaths,” Sanjay Singh, general secretary of the state’s Primary Teachers’ Association, told Gaon Connection. The association claims it has recorded all the deaths, which are “unprecedented”. It has also alleged that many of those who fell ill after the training were still put on duty.
On being contacted, Dharmendra Singh, acting Chief Development Officer of Shahjahanpur, told Gaon Connection that there was never any question of deliberately hurting the sentiments of the bereaved families, or wishing anyone any harm.
“The district administration is always available to help its people. And, it followed the guidelines set out by the election commission. No one wishes to flout those orders,” Dharmendra Singh added.
On May 20, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had chaired a high level review meeting and said, “Currently, the guidelines of the Election Commission do not cover the impact caused by COVID-19 (being the unforeseeable future, retrospectively) within their ambit. Therefore, to address the current situation, the guidelines need to be amended keeping a sympathetic approach.”
The amendments proposed include effective rehabilitation (including employment opportunities) and adequate compensation being provided to the members of the family of the deceased (COVID-19 patient) within a specific time frame.
Meanwhile, in the grieving households, there is silence, fear and heartbreak as it slowly sinks in that the head of the family will never walk in through the doors again.
Written and edited by Pankaja Srinivasan. With inputs from Mohd Arif in Lucknow, Ramji Mishra in Shahjahanpur, and Mohit Shukla in Sitapur, UP.