The spread of corona virus to the rural areas of India, especially Uttar Pradesh and to some extent Bihar, has raised a serious question as unlike in cities the life-style here is quite different. The population is not very dense and the houses are well spread. There is no scope for crowded and air-conditioned marts, malls, banquet halls, multiplexes, packed restaurants etc. Villagers usually do not travel on AC buses, trains or aeroplanes even though migration is quite rampant.
Yet why is it that the corona virus is taking such a huge toll of lives in rural UP?
Most of the people interviewed by different journalists are saying that there was a huge surge in number of COVID-19 cases after the rural local bodies poll held in four phases in the second half of April. The prolong process of counting which started on May 2 continued for three days.
Apart from the Panchayat polls the Maha Kumbh Mela at Haridwar in neighbouring Uttarakhand is also held responsible for the rapid spread of the virus in the interior areas of UP and other north Indian states too.
It is true West Bengal too witnessed a prolong eight-phase Assembly election. Polling also took place in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Puducherry, but it concluded on April 6. But the counting, a risky exercise in the era of pandemic, for all these places took place on May 2.
While Kerala and Tamil Nadu were already in the grip of corona virus the number of positive cases increased in West Bengal and Assam after the election and subsequent counting forcing both the states to impose lockdown. In West Bengal the chief minister Mamata Banerjee on May 15 lost one of her younger brothers, Ashim (62), to COVID-19 after a prolong illness of three weeks. He used to live in the same house with Mamata.
But then why the toll in Uttar Pradesh is so heavy that people are finding it difficult to even perform the last rites and are dumping the bodies in rivers Ganga and Yamuna?
The case in Yogi Adityanath-ruled Uttar Pradesh was somewhat different from the other four states and one Union Territory where the Assembly elections were held. Apart from that, it is from UP that the number of devotees who took part in Kumbh Mela was the highest. At least on three days over three million pilgrims took holy dip in Ganga in the prolong Mela.
Unlike in other places the Panchayat poll in Uttar Pradesh did not attract so much media attention. It thus gave a free hand to the Yogi administration to carry on this exercise in its own way.
The truth is that the Panchayat poll in UP was due in December last year, but it could not take place on the plea that the state was in the grip of corona virus. But the irony is that Assembly elections were held in Bihar between October 28 and November 7 and counting was held on November 10. Hardly any pandemic-related deaths were reported then.
Besides, Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation poll was held in Telangana’s capital on December 1 with Yogi and Union home minister Amit Shah the main campaigners from the BJP.
Anyway, since the rural bodies election could not take place in UP the Allahabad High Court, while responding to a plea, on February 4 asked the State Election Commission to complete the election by April 30. When the second wave came just after that the State Election Commission argued that it is bound by the Allahabad High Court ruling.
Tragically the situation turned so bad that, according to various teachers’ associations, at least 700 teachers died during the training for Panchayat poll and subsequent conducting of the four-phase polling.
The teachers moved the Supreme Court demanding that the counting dates be postponed. The Apex Court on May 1 after a special sitting refused to defer the counting following the State Election Commission’s “solemn assurances” that sufficient safeguards have been taken to ensure that COVID protocol is followed at the counting centres.
However, there is a general complaint that neither during the election nor during the counting the protocol was followed leading to the rapid spread of corona in the last week of April and the first half of May. The irony that the counting was followed by post-poll violence on May 5 and 6.
During election too, various candidates spent huge amount of money to pay the fare to migrant labourers working outside the state to come and take part in the poll. Most of these migrants came from states like Maharashtra, Gujarat etc. where COVID-19 had already wreaked havoc much earlier.
Some of these workers, while travelling to Uttar Pradesh fell ill. Thus, these are the factors which led to the fast spread of corona virus to the interior of the state.
Curiously, in this whole exercise the BJP supported candidates were very active though it is another thing that an overwhelming number of them suffered humiliating defeat.
Not only that, the health infrastructure in rural UP is much inferior to that in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu which too went for poll. Even in villages in the vicinity of the national capital region there is hardly any arrangement to treat patients suffering from even mild symptoms of corona virus. That’s why the situation has gone so much out of control.
Soroor Ahmed is a senior journalist based in Patna. The views expressed are personal.