Priyambada Ojha, an assistant teacher at the BLP Balika Intercollege in Shivrampur village attended a training session as a polling officer on 17 April 2021. Shivrampur is in the Dubhar block of Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia district which was scheduled to have its panchayat election on 26 April. Ojha never made it to election duty because she was severely ill on election day and died the next day.
Ojha’s son Shivendu Shekhar Ojha said she developed a cough, a cold and fever three or four days after her training for election duty. He showed me documents from the Ballia District Hospital where she was treated before her death that showed her oxygen saturations level had dropped to 68 percent. Shivendu said that his mother must have been infected during the training session.
Local body elections were held in four phases across Uttar Pradesh between April 15 and April 29. The elections were conducted simultaneously for gram panchayats or village councils, for panchayat samitis at the block level and for zila parishads at the district level, across 58,194 gram panchayats that included 97,941 villages. Teachers and non-teaching school staff across the state were pressed into polling duty during the most deadly phase yet of the COVID-19 epidemic in India. More than 1,600 staff members from primary schools have died in a few short weeks according to an estimates by a teachers’ union. Many more deaths have been registered among secondary school staff and state employees.
I spoke to many families who had lost members who were teaching staff: Vijay Pratap Singh, a shiksha mitra or para-teacher in Ballia who was in his mid-forties but had comorbidities for COVID-19 and died after election duty; Shambhu Nath, a primary school teacher in Ballia who went for election duty despite a cold and cough and died soon after; Sunita Devi, an assistant teacher in Varanasi’s Matuka village, who had to attend election duty despite being unwell and died on 22 April; Anjum Fatma, an assistant teacher in Gorakhpur who developed a fever after her election duty on 15 April and died 10 days later.
The Uttar Pradesh Prathmik Shikshak Sangh, which is the primary teachers’ association, released a list on 28 April of 706 deaths of school staff who died during or after the elections. On 16 May, it revised this list to record 1,621 deaths. Azamgarh district was found to have the maximum number of deaths at 68. The list recorded 53 deaths from Rae Bareli, 50 from Gorakhpur, 47 from Lakhimpur Kheri, 46 from Prayagraj and 43 from Jaunpur. Out of Uttar Pradesh’s 75 districts, 23 districts recorded more than 25 deaths.