Bihar assembly election 2020: Millions cast votes in Bihar under the shadow of Covid-19
Officials outside polling stations with thermal guns. Circles drawn on the ground to specify where voters should stand. Masks being distributed and hand sanitiser sprinkled liberally, and officers operating the election exercise with face shields.
Bihar saw India’s first mass election during the pandemic on Wednesday as 71 seats across 16 districts went to the polls. Roughly 11.5 million people exercised their franchise even as some complained of shortage of masks and violation of Covid-19 protocol laid down by the Election Commission.
The EC lowered the maximum number of voters for a booth to 1,000, staggered polling hours and extending postal ballot facility for those above 80. Arrangements for 700,000 units of hand sanitisers, 4.6 million masks, 600,000 personal protective kits, 670,000 face shields, and 2.3 million single-use gloves were made.
But in some districts, residents said the protocol was flouted. In Ara and Kaimur, some booths did not have spare masks for voters. In Bhojpur, voters jostled in queues outside the booth. In Jagdishpur, voters stood without masks close to each other. In some other districts, while voters sanitised their hands and wore masks, there was little distancing. “Neither mask nor gloves were provided to us at our booth. I even asked for gloves but it was not provided,” said Manoj Pandey, a voter in Ara.
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The fear of contracting Covid-19 was palpable among the polling personnel who number around 658,000, according to people in the know. Among requests for exemption from poll duty on medical grounds that rose this time were applications by officials who tested Covid-positive. Election officials, however, were not inclined to exempt those having recovered from Covid-19 as the risk of reinfection is considered infinitesimal.
In one such case, an official from the Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS) of the ministry of health was assigned election duty in Patna on October 28 and November 3, despite being on leave after suffering from post-Covid complications.
The CGHS additional director of Patna, the controlling officer of the official concerned, formally requested district election officials to exempt the staffer from poll duty, but the request was not accepted on the grounds that his letter for election training was already issued, said a CGHS functionary. “I am not aware of this particular case,” said additional district magistrate (ADM) Arun Jha, heading the personnel cell for conduct of the Bihar assembly elections in Patna district.
“Many officials, including our district magistrate, tested positive for Covid. This doesn’t mean that we exempt all of them from poll duty. We did not consider exemption requests of officials who had recovered from Covid and were past the mandatory isolation period,” he said. “We considered around 15 requests for exemption of officials who tested Covid-positive after the medical board set up to screen officials on health grounds recommended so.”
The medical board considered for exemption 1,500 of 2,000 applicants who were asked to appear before it at Patna’s Sri Krishna Memorial Hall 10 days back, said ADM Vinayak Mishra. Jha said the number of requests for exemption of officials from poll duty was more this time as compared to previous years. He, however, could not quantify the requests made on grounds of Covid. “We did not screen applications on the basis of Covid-19, though requests for exemption from poll duty were certainly more this year.”
Bhagalpur exempted around 600 officials from poll duty of the 950 requests it received on medical grounds, said Pranav Kumar, its district magistrate. “We received around seven requests for exemption on grounds of Covid, claiming they have been infected by the virus after being assigned poll duty,” said Kumar.
Barring Patna, most of the remaining 37 districts of Bihar have a positivity rate of less than 5% on real time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR), the confirmatory test for Covid-19. Patna’s positivity rate was over 7% on RT-PCR tests. However, the positivity rate in most districts would be less than 1%-2% if rapid antigen tests were also to be taken into account, said health officials, who did not wish to come on record. The state has seen roughly 214,000 cases.
“Despite the precautions, we are definitely scared of Covid-19, but have to do election duty, as we do not have a choice. As officers, it is our mandate to conduct elections, which is a constitutional obligation,” said Anil Kumar, general secretary of the Bihar Administrative Service Association (BASA). Around 900 of 1,243 BASA officials have been deputed for election duty in Bihar.
“Everyone is scared of Covid-19. Social distancing, which the government has been advocating as a precautionary step, is not being followed in the true sense and exists only on paper, which is worrisome for poll officials,” said Anjani Kumar, former general secretary of the Bihar Engineering Services Association (BESA).
(With inputs from Prasun K Mishra in Kaimur and Prashant Ranjana in Ara)