When the New York Times recently claimed that the official Covid-19 figures in India grossly understate the true scale of the pandemic in the country the Indian government went ballistic. Based on an analysis, in consultation with over a dozen experts, the NYT put the death toll due to Covid-19 in India at over 5 times the official numbers – making it ‘the most catastrophic loss anywhere in the world’.
A government spokesperson called the report ‘absolutely false’ while External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, currently on an official visit to the US, alleged “a political effort” to tarnish the government’s image.
As this controversy rages on globally, closer home in Uttar Pradesh, the ‘undercounting’ of the dead is turning into a major political battle with the state’s teachers unions fighting for official acknowledgement of the high death toll among their members and demanding adequate compensation.
According to the union 1,621 teachers and non-teaching staff of the Basic Education Department have died since the first week of April following the outbreak of the second wave of Covid-19. Of these, more than 90 per cent of the teachers were on duty at the panchayat elections that concluded in mid-April, when the pandemic was spreading rapidly in much of northern India. The teachers unions have asked for compensation of Rs 1 crore to the kin of the deceased, a demand supported by all opposition parties in the state.
The panchayat polls in UP were a gargantuan exercise involving 13 lakh candidates in the fray for some 7.5 lakh posts for the 3-tier local governance institution. Along with government employees several hundred thousand teachers were deployed to perform poll duty, which was compulsory.
Teachers were threatened with prosecution under the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 if they skipped poll duty.
According to the teachers unions however neither the state Election Commission nor the state government evolved norms for the safety of poll personnel—like giving them PPE kits and ensuring social distancing and the panchayat polls were conducted in the most casual manner.
A government school teacher in Kanpur told Covid Response Watch, “We demanded that all teachers should be given vaccines before the panchayat poll duty but it was ignored. We were not given any PPEs either’.
According to her, the counting centres had a crowd of 80–100 people or in some cases and social distancing was virtually impossible in the counting centres.
“Nobody bothered” she says.
The UP government employees’ association has also claimed that 600 government employees have died due to poll duty.
Dismissing all these claims however, the UP Minister of State for Basic Education Satish Dwivedi has asserted there were only 3 deaths of teachers in total, strictly counting only those who died due to Covid-19 on the day of the panchayat election.
“The callous UP bureaucracy, has come up with such a bizarre criteria only to please their political bosses and to minimize the compensation that may have to be paid. Naturally, if a teacher contracted the infection while on duty, he or she would not die on the same day but would undergo treatment for a few days and die in a hospital or at home only after a few days ”, said Vinod Pandey, President of the Allahabad district unit of the Madhyamik Shikshak Sangh.
The teachers’ organizations have compiled a detailed list of the 1621 teachers who died, giving their names, area of work and other details, providing irrefutable evidence to back their claim. One of the most tragic cases, highlighted in the national media also, was that Kalyani Agrahari, a 27-year-old teacher in Jaunpur district, who was eight-months pregnant at the time of the panchayat polls.
On April 9, Kalyani submitted an application saying she would not be able to report on election duty.
“Due to my critical pregnancy, it is my humble request to the district election officer to relieve me from my duty,” she wrote in the application, which was not accepted. She was told she would lose her job if she did not comply with the orders.
Kalyani had no other option, so she went and performed the poll duty, during which she contracted Covid-19. Ten days after the polls were over she died. The District Magistrate of Jaunpur refused to give any compensation to her family on the specious plea that she did not die on the polling day itself.
The news sent a wave of shock through the teaching community, especially among women teachers, and galvanized the unions into action.
“There is no value for life in UP, how then there can be a proper valuation for death” Usha Singh, a teacher at the Sarvodhaya Inter-College, Gaziapur.
Uttar Pradesh, which is the largest state in India with a population of 204 million, has a literacy rate of 69.72%, the eighth-lowest in India. It also has the worst pupil-teacher ratio in the country, with a teacher for every 39 students at the primary level, compared to the all-India average of 1:23.
After being in denial mode for long it appear the UP government, worried about the political fallout, has agreed to provide Rs.30 lakh as compensation to the kin of the 135 teachers and government employees who died due to Covid-19. It also announced that one member from the family of each deceased teacher would be given a government job as a teacher.
The Yogi regime also seems to be anxious about the outcome of a petition on the issue before the Allahabad High Court. Justices J. Justices Ajit Kumar and J. Siddhartha Varma recently issued notice to the State Election Commission asking why action could not be taken against it for failure to comply with the Covid-19 guidelines regarding ensuring social distancing and safety of those on election duty.
In recent months the Allahabad High Court has taken a tough stand against several state government directives and actions. In April it reprimanded the government and said it must discard its “my way or no way” attitude while dealing with the mounting distress caused by the pandemic’s second surge.
B.Sivaraman is an independent researcher based in Allahabad. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org