“Every day I was in fear”: How the lives of UP’s teachers were risked for an election

Nine teachers who died shortly after panchayat election duty in Uttar Pradesh. (L-R Top row: Dinesh Kumar, Sunita Devi, Anjum Fatma, Vijay Pratap Singh, Shambhu Nath. Bottom row: Chhabinath Maurya, Daksh Kumar, Rajesh Kumar, Ram Bilas Ram). SOURCE PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY FAMILIES OF DECEASED
14 June, 2021

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. 

“Most people were infected during training from 9 April to 14 April in our area,” Praphull Rai, the vice president of the TET Prathmik Shikshak Sangh in Ghazipur, a smaller teachers association linked to the state employees joint council, told me. “It was a complete mess at training centre as hundreds of people were there. It was the time when cases had started rising. In one room there were 300 or 400 people. How was it possible to follow social distancing?”

Rai said that the government had assured teachers that it would provide them protective gear and ensure that election work would be conducted following COVID-19 appropriate protocols but did not follow through. He had to make sure he had his own double mask, face shield, sanitiser and gloves to attend the training programme. 

“The duty from training to counting was like a horrible dream for me,” a teacher in Prayagraj, who did not want to be identified, told me. “Every day I was in fear. Looking at the rise in cases in UP, my wife was scared of my duty and risk to health and so the risk to life.” Like many others, he had to make a difficult decision whether to protect himself or his job. “I could not bear the loss of my job,” he said. He carried out his elections duties and then turned his attention to his health. “After counting, I went to a medical shop and took a packet of medicine which was being sold as medicines for coronavirus. I isolated myself for 15 days and took those medicines.” Many teachers were hesitant to talk about their experiences as polling officers due to fear of action against them. 

While the teachers’ association counted 1,621 deaths, the state’s official count of teachers who have died during election duty is much lower. Uttar Pradesh’s primary education department released a press note on 18 May declaring that only three people had died in the state due to COVID-19 while on election duty. The state’s education minister issued a press release in 19 May reiterating this claim. 

Teachers suspect that this disparity in the death toll is because of loopholes in the state’s guidelines. For instance, a person is considered to have died while on duty only if the death occurs at the place of work, on the way to work or on the way home. This would leave out the majority of COVID-19 deaths in which symptoms show up days after infection and deaths can occur weeks or months after infection. Official communications before the primary education department released its press note show that government officials knew that many more teachers had died due to COVID-19. An official of the basic education department in Ghazipur wrote a letter to the secretary of the basic education council in Prayagraj saying that 26 school staff in Ghazipur district had died of COVID-19. The Ballia district administration released a list of 27 deaths in the first week of May. However, neither letter said that the deaths occurred during election duty. 

“There is no definite time period during which someone can die of COVID-19,”  Kuldeep Kumar, assistant professor of medicine at the University College of Medical Sciences and Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital in Delhi, said. “A person can die even after six months due to complications caused by a COVID-19 infection.”  

On 19 May, Suresh Kumar Tripathi, a member of Uttar Pradesh’s legislative council wrote to the Ajay Singh Bisht, the chief minister, saying that 425 teaching and non-teaching staff from the secondary education department had died while on election duty. Tripathi’s estimation was based in death reports from various teachers’ associations. He said in the letter that these deaths were in addition to the 1,621 deaths recorded by the primary teachers’ association. Hari Kishor Tiwari, the president of the state employees’ joint council wrote to Bisht on 23 May saying that the council had received reports of 518 deaths during election duty. He also said in the letter that the number of deaths could be as high as 1,000. After several media reports questioning the government’s count, the chief minister directed the education department and election commission to reconsider the guidelines keeping the realities of the COVID-19 epidemic in mind. 

“In total, across UP, I guess that about 3,000 people died due to election duty,” Tripathi told me. “What the government has said about relooking at the guidelines is nothing but a formality. We want a concrete decision and justice to all victims. If they do not take any initiative immediately, we would raise this issue more aggressively. As an MLC I will raise the issue in house too.” The Prathmik Shikshak Sangh had asked the state government for compensation of Rs 1 crore to the families of those who died and jobs for family members. The state employees’ joint council has also demanded compensation of Rs 1 crore. 

The high death toll among school staff acting as polling officers is due to a combination of factors. The first factor was that the elections were held at during the peak of the devastating second wave of infections in India, which has been one of the worst outbreaks anywhere in the world.  

The second factor was that little effort was made to get poll workers in Uttar Pradesh vaccinated before the election. Assembly elections were help in five other states at the same time. While evidence points to the spread of COVID-19 in these states due to campaigning and polling, the Election Commission of India made provisions for all poll workers to be vaccinated before the assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Assam and Puducherry. Uttar Pradesh’s state election commission which oversees panchayat elections did not make similar provisions. “There was no such effort before the panchayat elections,” Tripathi, the member of the legislative assembly, said. Tiwari, the president of the employees’ council, told me that different associations asked the government to vaccinate poll workers before the election but the demand was not taken seriously.  

The third factor was that the elections for three levels of local bodies were held simultaneously. “This election could have been postponed for three or four months but the government compelled us to take such risk for lives,” Rai said. “This time all the three levels’ elections were held together, which brought more crowds to the polling booths and so there was a greater risk of community spread. More teachers were needed for election duty and were affected.” 

Abhay Tripathi, a gram pradhan—head of village administration—candidate from Sant Kabir Nagar district said he was shocked to see a disregard of COVID-19 norms at a counting centre at the Semariyawan block. “There were 51 tables where the counting was being done,” he said. “Each table was crowded with about 50 or 60 people and the distance of two tables was not more than five feet.” Tripathi said guidelines to allow only poll officials who tested negative at counting centres were changed to allow people in after a mere thermal scan at the entrance. He said even thermal scans were not properly conducted because the centre had a crowd of about 2,000 people. “Things were beyond control and all COVID-19 protocols were broken.”

COVID-19 tests had become unavailable or difficult to access in many parts of the state at this time. Amit, a newly-elected pradhan from Jalaun who goes by only his first name, tried to help polling agents get tested for COVID-19 before counting in his district on 2 May. “When we went to the government hospital on 30 April, they said that no test would be required,” he said. “This decision was taken by local administration. I personally observed that there were people at the hospital with complaints of fever and cough but they were asked to have some medicine and then come for the test if they showed no improvement in three of four days.”

The elections coincided with the rise of cases across India and murmurs of possible lockdowns in major metropolitan cities. Many people from villages in Uttar Pradesh who works as migrant labourers in these cities started making their way back home because they did not want to get caught in cities during lockdowns. Candidates standing for elections in Uttar Pradesh gave them other incentives to come home, like arranging transport back to villages. “I made about 250 tickets for the people to come from different areas like Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and others places,” a gram pradhan from a village in Ballia, said. “Some were my relatives and many were the people from weaker section of my gram panchayat.” Umender Singh from Badayun district worked as a rickshaw puller and vegetable vendor in Delhi. “After the lockdown was announced people started thinking of going home and after the extension of the lockdown they were desperate to go,” he said, referring to the week-long lockdown that the Delhi government first announced on 19 April, which was extended several times till the first week of June. “There were more than 30 people who came back to our village as our pradhanasked us to come. He paid for our bus ticket. He was here in Delhi to meet us and manage our journey to village.” Singh added that it was a common practice even before the pandemic for local leaders to give migrants travel fare and some extra money to go home to vote. 

Jugal Kishore, the head of community medicine at Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi agreed that this was the most likely scenario. “Definitely the people who reached villages spread the infection,” he said. “Such migration from Delhi and Mumbai and even the areas in the national capital region Ghaziabad and Faridabad where the infection rate was high that time, carried the virus to those areas which were isolated and without infection.” Lockdowns and loss of work and wages set off migration from major cities with high caseloads like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore to villages across India and enabled the spread of COVID-19. The Caravan reported in May how Bihar failed to test returning migrants leading to a surge in cases. 

People returning in April were not tested or quarantined to contain the spread of COVID-19. “People who were migrating to their native places did not get tested because of fear of isolation or quarantine on reaching their destinations,” Kumar, the assistant professor of at Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, said. Kumar treated several patients, including teachers from Utter Pradesh, for COVID-19. “The states like UP, Bihar, MP, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand, there was no provision of testing asymptomatic patients, who could have been carriers of the virus.” 

Amit, the gram pradhan from Jalaun, was sure that the panchayat elections played a major role in spreading the COVID-19. “It was full of mismanaged COVID-19 protocol,” he said. “People came in close contact with each other and the spike happened. Be it any reason like unawareness from the side of the community and lack of concern and action from the side of the government, things went with adverse effect causing severe infection across the state.”

The result was disaster. As cases rose rapidly in Uttar Pradesh from the middle of April to, state capacity could not keep up. Shortages of testingmedicineshospital beds and oxygen were reported from across the state. “The entire system collapsed in UP and the claims by the government were false,” Suresh Pratap Singh , a senior journalist from Varanasi said. “In hospitals patients were asked to bring even their own beds. They were asked to bring oxygen as well.” Reports of the spike in the numbers of cremations and burials emerged. Mass casualties were most evident when bodies were found floating in the Ganga and buried along its banks because they could not be accommodated in crematoriums or burial grounds. “The deaths happened due to poverty, low tests and lack of test facilities and unavailability of oxygen,” Singh said. 

Many of these deaths have not been recorded as COVID-19 deaths, even among teachers who died in this period. “There were cases in which the teachers tested negative initially but after death they were found to be positive,” Rai said. “In many cases, death was caused by COVID-19-like symptoms but it was not confirmed because they did not go for a test. I too had a cough, a cold and fever and my entire family was unwell. We recovered but did not get tested because I was afraid that it might be some other strain and as the system at the hospital was not proper.”

On 31 May, the state cabinet approved compensation of Rs 30 lakh to families of state government employees, including teachers, who died within 30 days of election duty. On 1 June, the additional chief secretary wrote to district magistrates and panchayat raj officials asking for death reports according to the new 30-day criterion. The Uttar Pradesh Prathmik Shikshak Sangh wants the amount raised to Rs 1 crore as they had earlier demanded. “We are determined that the amount should be revised to Rs 1 crore,” Dinesh Chandra Sharma, the president of Uttar Pradesh Prathmik Shikshak Sangh, said. “Also, the period of 30 days should be reconsidered as there are deaths that occurred even after 30 days.” 

Chhabinath Maurya died on 20 May, more than a month after he finished his election duty on 15 April. He was the principal of a primary school in Bhadohi district. Uttama Maurya, his daughter said that she tweeted to the Uttar Pradesh chief minister and even to the Prime Minister about the unfairness of the 30-day criterion for compensation. “I tweeted five times to the CM of Uttar Pradesh and three times to the PM of India,” she said. “I requested to change the revised criteria of 30 days as my father died after 30 days and he was in election duty. These criteria must be changed.”


Below are stories of eight teachers who died of COVID-19 or with COVID-19 symptoms after being assigned polling duties: 

Vijay Pratap Singh 

Singh was a shiksha mitra or para-teacher in Hanumanganj block in Ballia district. He trained as a polling officer on 17 April, discharged his duty on 26 April and died on 29 April. Singh’s son Avinash said that his father had gone to the polling station where he was posted a day before the election because it was far from where they lived. I was at my maternal uncle’s house,” Avinash said. “My mother told me that my father left for duty on 25 April despite having a severe cough and cold. He returned and his health deteriorated fast.” Avinash said that his father got a CT scan, a diagnostic test that can indicate COVID-19, which showed that he probably had the infection. Singh was in his early forties but particularly vulnerable because he had high blood sugar and blood pressure. “He should not have been given the duty in this type of surge of COVID-19 in the state,” Avinash said. “This was the carelessness of the government.” 

Daksh Kumar

Kumar went for a training session on 8 April and for election duty on 15 April. He started feeling ill two days later, his brother told me. “We took him to a doctor in the area and he gave him medicines for COVID-19,” the brother said. “For the next three to four days he did not complain of anything. He developed breathing trouble around 23 April. We took him to the doctor and his oxygen level was below 90 percent. The doctor suggested immediate hospitalisation.” Kumar’s brother recounted how the family tried hard to find a hospital bed but finally had to set Kumar up with oxygen support at home. He initially showed slight signs of improvement but his heath started deteriorating again in a few days. “We finally somehow arranged a bed at a private hospital and he was admitted on 27 April at night,” his brother said. After a CT scan that showed a severe lung infection, Kumar was put on ventilator for a few days. When his oxygen levels improved he was taken off the ventilator but remained on oxygen support in the hospital for three more weeks. “We arranged all the medicines like remdesivir but his condition again started deteriorating from 21 May,” his brother told me. “On 23 May, his oxygen levels suddenly became very low and he was shifted to ventilator again but did not survive.”

Kumar’s brother was disappointed with the government’s criteria of death within 30 days of election duty to claim compensation. “The criteria made by the government of 30 days is not justified,” he said. “They should remove the 30 days period barrier and make it general if the person died due to COVID and was in election duty. No matter how long time it took from election till demise.”

Ram Bilas Ram

Ram was an assistant teacher at a primary school in the Bhanwarkol block of Ghazipur district. He attended a training session for election duty on 10 April in Ghazipur, according to Kumari Bideeka, his daughter. He died on 2 May of COVID-19. “He was in training on 10 April and since then was busy in his work visiting his school and the education office,” Bideeka told me. “He said there were violations of COVID-19 norms everywhere during the training. He was in fear of any infection.” Bideeka added that her father was prepared to go to his polling centre where he was posted for 29 April but was too ill. “We don’t know much about what to do now but this is a death from COVID and I am sure he was infected during the training,” she said. 

Dinesh Kumar

Kumar was a 38-year-old assistant teacher at a primary school in Chuppepur village in Varanasi district. He died on 25 April due to COVID-19. Vansh Narayan Singh, his father-in-law who is also a teacher, said that after attending the training for election on 11 April, Verma started feeling unwell around 15 April. “Dinesh went to take his duty charge on 18 April for the scheduled election on 19 April,” Patel said. “When he told the presiding officer about his health conditions, his duty was cancelled but he had to wait till the evening for his replacement to arrive. In the next couple of days his condition started getting worse and he was admitted at a private hospital. He tested COVID-19 positive on 22 April and died on 25 April.”

Rajesh Kumar

Kumar was a 45-year-old assistant teacher at a primary school in Sevapuri block in Varanasi district. “After training for election duty he got sick,” Anupama Patil, his wife, told me. “He started taking medicine prescribed by a physician but there was no improvement for about a week. So, he returned to his home town Jaunpur on 12 April. He could not get tested because elections were on 15 April and everything was closed.” Kumar got tested the day after the election and found that he was COVID-19 positive. Three days later he was admitted to the district hospital in Jaunpur. However, his conditions did not improve and he died on 1 May. Kumar was also not able to go for election duty because he was ill.  Anupama believes he contracted the infection during the training session. “How a government could say that such deaths are not COVID-19 deaths and not from election duty?” she asked. “This shows the inhumane and cruel approach of the government.”

Sunita Devi 

Devi, an assistant teacher in Matuka Village in Varanasi, died of COVID-19 on 22 April. She had been working as a polling officer three days earlier despite feeling unwell. “We were both given election duty,” Dinesh Vishwakarma, her husband who is also a teacher, told me. “We attended the training and were ready for election duty on 19 April. Before that, I had gathered from a media report that if a couple are in election duty then one of them could ask for cancellation of duty.” Vishwakarma asked the administration to relieve Devi of election duty and she was put on a reserve list. “We were relaxed that she did not have to go,” he said. “On 16 April in the morning she got a WhatsApp message to report for election duty. The presiding officer was not ready to excuse her despite her bad health and so she stayed there till the work was finished.” Vishwakarma said that Devi’s health became worse through the day and she managed to go to her father’s house near to the polling centre. “It was night so nothing much could be done and the next day I took her to a doctor who diagnosed her with COVID-19,” he said. “She needed an ICU and I somehow managed it but it did not work and I lost her. This is negligence on the part of the government.”

Anjum Fatma

Fatma was an assistant teacher in Badgo village in Gorakhpur district. She died of COVID-19 on 26 April. Her husband died during the lockdown in April last year. He had a cardiac problem but did not get treated in time because hospitals were not treating ailments apart from COVID-19. According to Fatma’s brother Rizwanullah Khan, she attended her training on 10 April and went for election duty on 15 April. “The next day she developed a fever,” Khan said. “We thought it was due to exertion and gave some medicine after consulting a doctor. Her health did not improve even after three or four days.” Fatima and her family thought she had a flu. They did not consider the possibility of COVID-19 till they took her to see a doctor on 22 April and she tested positive. “She was hospitalised on 23 April and died three days later,” Khan said. “All this happened in a week and we never ever imagined this situation.” 

Chedi Lal Vishwakarma

Vishwakarma was an assistant teacher in Bhanwapur town of the Siddharth Nagar district. Satish Chandra Diwedi, the minister of state for primary education is from this area. Vishwarma completed his training and his poll duty on 10 April and 26 April respectively. He was then trained on 30 April to count votes and went for counting on 2 May. “After election duty on 26 April he was feeling sick,” Ved Prakash, his brother, told me. “He told us he was feeling feverish and took some paracetamol. We all thought that it was normal fever. Family members suggested he not attend the counting duty on 2 May. He was worried of government action if he was absent. After 2 May, we all asked him again to meet a doctor but he assured us that it was nothing but normal fever. During that period, he was active in family gathering too and attended a marriage as well.” Vishwarma suddenly became breathless on 8 May. His family took him to a private hospital where he tested positive for COVID-19 and died the same day.