Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh): “I lost my wife and my baby, who would have come into this world soon.”
The voice of Deepak Agrahari, 30, was distraught as it came over the phone from the eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP) town of Jaunpur. Currently unemployed, Agrahari is among 1,621 families of teachers who either lost a mother, a father, wife or a husband to Covid-19 infection during the UP panchayat or local council elections in April 2021.
Unfolding in four phases over 15-29 April, the panchayat polls to elect over 800,000 rural representatives were criticised (here and here) for being held amid a worsening pandemic and spurring, as Article 14 reported on 12 May, a deadly second wave of infection and death.
Among the dead teachers are 1,181 men and 440 women, according to a list provided by the Uttar Pradesh Prathmik Shikshak Sangh (UP Teachers’ Federation) or UPPSS and its affiliated unions. UP has more than 800,000 teachers, about 300,000 of whom were deployed as election officials. About 100 million voters in India’s most-populous state cast their vote.
We spoke to families of nine teachers across eight UP districts—Hardoi, Lakhimpur Kheri, Lucknow, Gonda, Raebareli, Jaunpur, Unnao and Ayodhya—and found families dealing with the loss of wage-earners, grief, anger and even fear of their government, which has frequently criminalised appeals for help, complaints of poor healthcare, criticism and assistance to Covid-19 patients.
Common to all the stories is the lack of government communication, compensation or acknowledgement of loss. As a teachers’ union said in a 16 May letter to chief minister Yogi Adityanath: “It is unfortunate that neither the Basic Education Department, nor the government of Uttar Pradesh, has till now expressed any feeling of grief at the deaths of teachers in such a large number.”
Government Denial And Obfuscation
Adityanath, whose government refused to postpone elections despite repeated requests from unions, did not provide protective measures or implement its own safety assurances. He refused to even admit any link between the elections and the deaths of school teachers.
“Was there any election in Delhi? Did Maharashtra have an election?” he asked reporters in Noida on 12 May.
On 19 May, the UP government said that only three teachers had died of Covid-19 while on duty in the panchayat polls. Dinesh Chandra Sharma, president of the UP UPPSS, told Article 14 the statement was “factually incorrect and far from reality”.
“What about the remaining 1,618?” said Sharma. “Why don’t they (the government) hold a press conference and tell the public?”
On 25 May, a government spokesperson attributed the decision to hold panchayat elections during the pandemic to Allahabad High Court orders.
But panchayat elections were deferred in the past, even in normal times. They were deferred for instance, from September 1994 to April 1995. Former state election commissioner Satish Kumar Agarwal had asked, “Why this hurry amid an unprecedented pandemic and a humanitarian crisis staring at us?”
The government ignored appeals for vaccination and medical insurance, and when on 24 April teachers’ associations appealed to the Supreme Court that ballot counting on 2 May be deferred, Adityanath’s government announced that teachers would be tested and their health monitored at counting centres. None of this happened.
On 1 May, the Supreme Court ordered mandatory Covid-19 testing of all election officials before counting the next day, which was impossible since results are never available within 24 hours.
In the Allahabad High Court, on 27 April, the government was asked why Covid protocols were not followed during elections. The next hearing was fixed for 3 May, by which time counting was over.
The consequence, we found, was a trail of devastated families.
Kalyani Agrahari, 27
‘There Were Warnings Of An FIR’
On 8 April, Deepak Agrahari read a government letter that said his wife, Kalyani, 27, a primary school teacher, was assigned to election duty. The next day, the couple travelled 30 km from Pataila gram panchayat to the election administrative centre at Jaunpur to submit a letter that said she could not possibly report for election duty since Kalyani was eight-months pregnant. They enclosed her ultrasound report.
“On 13 April, we were told she has been assigned duty for 14 April, 35 km away in another block altogether,” said Deepak. She did as she was ordered.
At the polling booth, according to Deepak, there were announcements: If you do not do your duty, an FIR (first information report) will be filed against you.
Three days later, Kalyani complained of body ache. He thought it was because of her pregnancy. She was wracked by cough, fever and pain, and soon after tested positive for Covid-19. After two days of running in the town in search of a hospital that would admit her, she was finally taken to the Jaunpur government hospital.
“She was just lying there, unattended,” said Deepak. “She kept shouting, pleading for doctors to check up on her. The doctor came after half an hour and gave her an injection. Within five to 10 minutes, she passed away.”
Kalyani died on 24 April. On 26 April, they would have been married three years.
After her cremation, said Deepak, he had not felt like moving out of home. The local education officer called him and assured help. That was the last Deepak heard from him.
Sudhir Kumar Tiwari, 48
‘His Children Keep Saying, Papa Is Still with Us’
Arvind Kumar Tiwari, 44, from the central UP town of Hardoi also said he heard of government warnings threatening criminal action against teachers who did not report for election duty.
“We were told that the teachers will be investigated if they did not show up, so we had little to no choice,” said Arvind, as he spoke of his elder brother Sudhir Kumar Tiwari, 48, a secondary school teacher, who died on 12 April after reporting for duty when apparently infected.
When Sudhir went for election training, he had a cold and by night he was vomiting, as a fever began.
On 11 April, doctors at a private hospital assured the family that Sudhir would recover. The next morning his oxygen levels plummeted, and round 3:30 pm, he was dead. He was cremated in Lucknow later that day.
Sudhir has two children, a boy and a girl, aged 16 and 10, respectively.
“They are quite disturbed, mentally and their condition is not good,” said Arvind. Both of them, he said, keep saying, “Papa has not left us. He is still here with us. He always will be.”
Sunita Rani, 56
‘My Mother Got No Medical Help at the Polling Booth’
“There is no family left anymore. Family is when there is a mother, father and a child. But my mother is gone, how do we call this a family?”
Manoj Kumar, 34, from the northern town of Lakhimpur Kheri spoke of his mother Sunita Rani, 56, a primary school teacher who died after the panchayat elections.
On 18 April, a day before her election duty, Rani reported to her election station, even though her sugar levels and blood pressure shot up.
At the polling station, she felt weakness and dizziness and was made to lie down.
“We requested that she leave and asked for medical help, but she got nothing,” said Kumar.
Rani died before her son could reach her to the hospital. Recalling their last conversation, Kumar said: “While driving her to the station, she was constantly telling me to drive slowly, ‘Don't worry about me. I will be fine, and I can take care of myself.’”
Although Rani was never tested for Covid-19, she had comorbidities, safety protocols were not followed at the polling stations, and those present can attest to the “sheer callousness and insensitivity”, said Kumar. On 21 May, Adityanath visited Lakhimpur Kheri and lauded local officials.
Kumar’s voice choked as he said: “My mother was my friend, my sister and my brother. She meant everything to me.” Kumar said that if could have foreseen what would happen, he would have made sure his mother took VRS (voluntary retirement scheme) six months before.
“I am only living for my father,” said Kumar. “We cook together and try to take care of each other. If I cry, he will also cry, so I don't show my pain or stress to him.”
‘Authorities Could Make Things Easier for Us’
Saba, 26, was in Mumbai for a personal visit, when her mother Farida Shamim, a primary school teacher, died on 26 April, after being infected with the coronavirus while on election duty in Kakori, a central UP town.
Now, she struggles with death certificates and related procedures. It is “exhausting”, she said, speaking on behalf of others who lost loved ones to the panchayat elections. When we spoke to Saba, she had not yet got the death certificate.
“She was infected at the school, because there were two teachers who turned out to be Covid positive,” said Saba. “There were patients near her school as well. My mother came in contact with them the next day.”
Since Farida had high blood sugar and pressure, Saba did not tell her she had Covid-19. She was scared to go to the hospital, said Saba, because if anything happened she feared her body may not be returned to the family.
At the Integral Hospital in Lucknow, the family was informed that her lungs had failed and within two hours Farida died of cardiac arrest.
“How she felt in her last minutes, what was on her mind, all these thoughts have also left with her,” said Saba.
Everything has changed, said Saba. Her younger siblings are in shock, and they must all learn how to run the household.
“She handled the bills, she earned a living and ran the household,” said Saba of her mother. Her father is currently not employed and is doing some freelance work. “There are younger siblings who have to get married but my house feels broken.”
She described her mother as “an honest and loving teacher” who, until the end, only wanted to do her job.
Dharmendra Pratap Singh, 50
‘Even in His Last Moments, He Was Worried About the Family’
Dharmendra Pratap Singh, 50, went for election training to the northeastern UP town of Gonda, where he was infected sometime between 15 and 20 April, said his son Sushant Shekhar Singh, 26.
There wasn’t much of a choice when the government pushed for elections and the use of teachers. His father’s job as a primary school teacher would have been in danger had he refused, said Sushant. “ Nobody would want to go voluntarily,” he said. “My father did not go out. Scared of the virus, he even wore masks inside the house.”
Dharmendra fell ill as soon as he returned from the training. “He got a cold, but we thought it was the flu,” said Sushant. “When he faced more complications, we got the Covid-19 test done, which came positive.”
Dharmendra had a fever, but he recovered after medication. Soon, he felt weak and developed breathing problems. His blood-oxygen level fell to 77 (anything below 94 requires medical attention), and continued falling after being admitted to hospital.
“His lungs were 75% affected already,” said Sushant. “Shortly, it happened, he had a heart attack and died on 12 May.”
The eldest in the family, Sushant, who was studying for competitive exams, said he would have to learn how to manage. “My father took care of everything,” said Sushant. “He was the sole-earner of the family.”
Sushant said he and his 20-year-old brother force fed meals to his mother, was “emotionally broken” and cried most of the time.
In his last moments, Sushant said his father worried about the family. “He asked me,” Sushant said: "What will happen in the future? What will we do? If something happens to me, what will happen to my family?”
Sunil Kumar, 50
Fighting A Lost Battle
In central UP’s Unnao town, Rahul Kumar, 32, was gearing up to fight the zila panchayat polls. On 19 April, he received an election symbol. The next day, his father, Sunil Kumar, 50, died.
A head teacher in primary school, Sunil went for election training between 13 and 14 of April. A few days later, he got a fever. Even though he took his usual medicines, nobody realised the seriousness of the issue.
“On the night of the 19th, he started complaining of breathlessness, so on the morning of the 20th we took him to a government hospital,” said Rahul, a member of the Samajwadi Party. “His oxygen levels were around 50. The previous evening, the levels were absolutely fine.”
Rahul and his family toiled hard in Unnao and then Kanpur to find a hospital, but they could not.
“No hospital was admitting him, no doctor was ready to see him,” said Rahul. “At one private hospital they said they would conduct the rapid test, if it was negative, they would admit him. But the result came positive.”
The family arranged for medicines, went home and arranged an oxygen cylinder. When they were trying to change cylinders, Sunil suddenly suffered a heart attack and died.
His father had told Rahul about the overcrowding and defiance of Covid-19 protocols at the polling station. Rahul who had filed his own nomination corroborated his father's claims.
Since his father was diabetic, Rahul said the family thought it best that he stay away from election duty. “I tried, but I was told that even the CDO (Chief Development Officer) was not cancelling anyone's duties,” said Rahul.
The family received a copy of the Covid test three days after he died.
“I do some work, but my father was the bread-winner of the family,” said Rahul, clearly distressed. “And, now, his death is not even being acknowledged by the authorities.”
After his father died, said Rahul, he had no energy or will to continue with his election bid.
Sandeep Kannaujia, 43
‘I Called Out To Him Repeatedly, But He Had Gone’
When junior high school school teacher Sandeep Kannaujia, 43, returned to his home in the town of Raebareli in southeast UP from election duty, he fell ill.
Sandeep’s elder son, Sumit Kannaujia, 17, a class 12 student said his father did not want to go. “How could we have stopped them (the government)?” he said. “It was election duty, so he had to go.”
Despite medication, Sandeep’s oxygen level fell to 60. On 26 April, he was admitted to a hospital, where the family alleged delay and negligence.
“I put my hand on his chest and was caressing him, I kept saying, 'papa! papa!', made him drink water, but he suddenly stopped responding,” said Sumit. “I was holding his hand but then with a sudden jerk he left it, and it fell down.”
His father’s entire body was sweating, Sumit recalled. “Then, just like that,” said Sumit, “He succumbed to the virus on the night of 27 April.”
Still in shock, Sumit said his mother was in shock and 10-year-old brother was scared, as he watched her cry. Like most of the families we spoke to, Sandeep was the family’s only wage earner.
“My mother keeps having these bouts, she gets anxious and then cries a lot,” said Sumit. “I am still handling myself, but it's difficult handling my mother, she has no will to live.”
Sumit’s mother and brother had also tested positive, and have now recovered. He must still process his trauma, he said, and figure out how to look after the family.
Chandrajeet Yadav, 40 and Anurag Upadhyay, 46
‘He Died on The Way to the Hospital’
In the northeastern UP holy town of Ayodhya, is a tale of two families.
Himanshu Yadav, 16, said the family tried to dissuade his brother-in-law, Chandrajeet Yadav, 40, a primary school teacher, from going on election duty. “We tried to stop him from leaving,” said Himanshu, “But there were orders from above.”
When Chandrajeet returned from election duty on 15 April, he developed a fever, recovered and then started experiencing breathing difficulties.
“We were on our way to get him to a hospital when he died,” said Himanshu. “There was no ambulance available either, hence we arranged a car.”
When asked about the family Chandrajeet left behind, Himanshu told Article 14 that his mother had gone to her village, but his wife lies on her bed and does not talk to anyone. The couple married six years ago.
In the same district, Namrata Upadhyay, 42, spoke of her husband, a primary school teacher Anurag Upadhyay, 46, who was not assigned the poll duty but lost his life to the virus around the same time.
Anurag, a kidney-transplant patient, had only stepped out of the house to submit an application to exclude him from election duty. While his wife is unsure exactly when, she said he fell ill sometime after he returned.
“In a few days, he had trouble breathing so we took him to a hospital,” said Namrata. “First, we admitted him in Faizabad, then we took him to Kanpur because no bed was available in Lucknow. Everything happened too suddenly.”
Heartbroken, she said other members of her family, too, contracted Covid-19. They recovered. Anurag did not.
(Aliza Noor is a multimedia journalist from Lucknow. She worked with The Quint previously and is currently freelancing.)