Why didn’t High Court put Uttar Pradesh panchayat polls on hold?

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The Allahabad High Court is, as of now, greatly outraged at the conduct of UP panchayat elections in the middle of Covid-19 second wave. But why did it dither from putting it on hold when it could? This requires some serious probing because unlike the assembly polls, these elections were not wrapped in insurmountable constitutional question.

Why is it that the UP polls stand out? Because the high court through an order on May 7 put it on record that the state election commission had informed of 77 suspected Covid-19 deaths of polling officials from 28 districts. This is a big number and it was in response to media reports that some 135 polling officials, mainly teachers and social workers, had died from Covid-19 ostensibly contracted while discharging their election duties.

“He (counsel) has further argued that regarding deaths of the polling officers and agents during the polling, 77 deaths have come to be reported so far from 28 districts and reports from other districts were still awaited. He submitted that he would come with all the reports within the next one week. However, at the same time he submitted that the state government had decided to give compensation of ₹30,00,000 to the family members of the deceased polling officers,” stated the court.

Now, we still don’t know the exact numbers but by the next hearing, the court stepped up the pressure and asked the government to consider an increased compensation amount of ₹1 crore per family.

Let’s rewind by a month to April 7, the same court saw no merit in a PIL that sought postponement of these elections due to the raging spread of the pandemic. Consider this:

“As per the petitioner, looking at the massive surge in coronavirus infection in different parts of the state, it would be against the public interest to hold panchayat elections in rural areas. According to the petitioner, the elections would be causing enormous injury to the health of the public at large and that would be in contravention to Article 21 of the Constitution of India. We do not find any merit in the argument advanced. The state while notifying elections in panchayat raj institutions has already declared a protocol to be adhered during the election campaign,” the order stated.

In fact, earlier in its February 4 order which ordered the conduct of the polls by April 30, the HC had observed that many states like Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh had obtained extensions on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, it decided to go ahead when a fresh PIL was brought in April in the wake of the second Covid-19 wave.

One reason being speculated is the question of grant from the 15th Finance Commission to third-tier panchayati raj institutions, which in the case of UP would be quite significant given the size and population of the state. Now, finance commission rules do state that grants should be given to functional, duly elected panchayats. And that would mean holding elections every five years. But there have instances where exceptions have been made.

Tamil Nadu was given a basic grant as per recommendations of the 14 Finance Commission in 2017 after its local body elections were delayed over a legal tangle on delimitation. The basic grant, approximately 50% was given, recognising that the matter was sub-judice. Likewise, there’s also a precedent of getting arrears. J&K was handed over extra funds with arrears after it recently held local body elections.

So, legal precedents have existed to ensure that grants meant for local bodies are protected from appropriation by state governments while allowing for limited disbursal for urgent upkeep requirements and then compensating later through arrears. Which is why the entire saga is befuddling, especially in the light of the revelation that 77 poll officials have allegedly succumbed to Covid-19. Such numbers can’t be overlooked, just as the fact that the opportunity to postpone the polls went abegging.

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