New Delhi [India], May 1 (ANI): The Supreme Court on Saturday allowed the process of counting of votes of the Uttar Pradesh Gram Panchayat polls starting tomorrow while taking into note the assurance given by the State Election Commission that necessary measures will be in place in terms of Covid-19 guidelines.
A Bench headed by Justice AM Khanwilkar took into note the submissions of the State Election Commission that Class I gazetted officials will be responsible for adherence to COVID-19 protocol at each counting centre.
The Bench also directed that no victory rallies will be permitted throughout the state of Uttar Pradesh. It also recorded the undertaking given by the State poll panel that CCTV recording will be done centre-wise and the footage will be preserved and given in the petition pending before the Allahabad High Court.
"After considering the various submission, we decline to interfere in the SLP (filed against Allahabad High Court order) while recording the assurance given by the State government as well as State Election Commission of Uttar Pradesh that necessary measures will take place in terms of guidelines issued from time to time," the bench noted in its order.
"The operating procedures mentioned herein will be adhered to by all the stakeholders as well as duty holders without any exception. It is stated across the bar that strict curfew will be imposed in areas that will be identified by the concerned authorities in and around counting centres to ensure that only authorised representatives will be able to visit counting centres," the order stated.
It also noted in the order that the state poll panel has agreed to notify the names of persons who will be in charge of the concerned counting centres.
Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for Uttar Pradesh Election Commission, assured the court that Class I Officer of the state government will be assigned to monitor each of the 800 counting centres and will be held accountable for the counting centres.
The apex court order came on a plea seeking directions so that Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines are followed for the Uttar Pradesh Gram Panchayat polls counting day.
At the outset of the hearing, Bhati told the Bench that all four stages of the Panchayat elections are over.
Justice Khanwilkar during the hearing said, "The evolving situation is dynamic and what you thought sometime back may not be relevant", and asked whether the State poll commission assessed the current situation in the State.
"Are you taking stock of the day-to-day situation? Have you taken an assessment of the current situation? It's an evolving, dynamic situation? What is your latest?" Bench asked.
ASG Bhati said these elections took place in four stages and out of the total eight lakh seats, only counting for 2 lakh seats is required. The two orders passed by the state commission in the connection with Covid protocols during counting.
April 29 order is in sync with guidelines proposed by ECI for counting in assembly polls, she added.
She further contended that the candidates who have negative Covid RT-PCR test or antigen will only be allowed in the counting centre and everyone has to wear face masks and practice social distancing.
The Bench then asked Bhati whether at the time of entry along with negative Covid report temperature is also checked. She replied in affirmative.
Bhati further told the apex court that crowd should not gather and these are all mandated under the Disaster Management Act.
"The area will be sanitised. The tables will be kept at distances. Whoever has symptoms will not be allowed and no victory processions," she said.
Bhati said that she has been told counting will be staggered and not all Gram Panchayat seats will happen together.
Justice Khanwilkar told Bhati that at the macro-level state poll panel has to decide whether to carry on the counting or defer it. The Bench asked whether the poll panel has taken any call to defer the counting of the polls.
Bhati replied that it's a choice between the devil and the deep sea. "We have felt imperative and there is a deficit of grassroots governance. That's why we have decided to go ahead with the counting. The rural nigrani committees play a crucial role in maintaining Covid precautions in such areas. We are also bound by the High Court directions and the state has felt it is imperative counting is needed," she added.
The ASG further stated that counting is required only for one-fourth seats and senior officers are deputed at all 829 counting centres and take on the spot decisions on any aspect required.
The Bench said 2.41 lakh seats have to counted and over 800 centres are there and each centre has to take a load of 300 seats. It said centre wise specific planning needs to be done by the poll panel.
The UP state election commission replied that all seats will not be counted at one time and only eight tables will be set up at one time. Time will be divided accordingly and everyone has information about when their seats are being counted, Bhati added.
Justice Khanwilkar hearing the arguments asked Bhati whether the poll panel has applied its mind so that after two weeks situation is under control, with healthcare facilities.
She replied that a considered decision has been taken in that regard and administrative measures have been put in place for counting.
The Bench also asked if the counting can't wait for two weeks so that medical infrastructure improves and situation also improves.
However, Bhati argued that Covid "surge is still ahead of us and we have to take the decision with regard to Disaster Management Act." She added that counting is on Sunday because there is a curfew in UP. "We are confident that we will be able to control," Bhati said.
Advocate Shoeb Alam appearing for petitioner Sachin Yadav, who had approached the court against elections, contended that the counting needs to be deferred and referred to the case where Maharashtra state election commission has kept the counting process in abeyance.
Justice Khanwilkar, however, said that Maharashtra's situation is different, there are Councils and Corporations. Seats are vacated because of Court's order.
Advocate Alam submitted that Uttar Pradesh Election Commission has to take into account the severity of the situation and deferred the counting in the state.
"UP says social distancing and covid protocols will be followed but what is not being said is counting goes on for two to three days. In previous occasions counting could have been gone for 48 hours," he added.
More than 600 teachers have lost their lives for conducting this election, he contended.
The apex court said that it has to consider today's position, and the poll panel keeps on telling about the past. "Situation is different today. Don't go to the past. We are not interested. We want to understand that there should be clarity on the fact that all these things have been considered by the authority," it told ASG Bhati.
"We are still not able to comprehend the counting centres. There will be hundreds of seats at these centres. What will be the staff? Some centres may not be so big. How will you accommodate? Bench asked.
The ASG said that counting will happen in a shift of eight hours each and new officers will come in and after every shift, sanitisation will take place. Not more than 75 government officials plus the security official will be there are the centres. There will be a broadcast of the counting outside so that the candidates and nominees can see.
Seeking deferment of the counting, advocate Alam said a negative RT-PCR takes 2-3 days to come and if a person is infected and he's not showing symptoms, what will happen then?
On court's poser about the supervision and accountability of government to see things done rightly amidst Covid situation at the counting centres, ASG Bhati replied that senior officials have been deputed in each district and they will oversee the adherence of Covid-19 protocol and these will be IAS officers of Principal Secretary Level.
The Bench said the officers shall not be just observers, but they must be accountable in case anything goes wrong.
ASG further stated that there is a Class 1 gazetted officer, we will pass an order saying that they will be fully responsible for Covid-19 guidelines. CCTV cameras are also present at the counting centres and footage will be preserved.
Yesterday, the top court issued notice to the State of Uttar Pradesh and the State Election Commission on a plea relating to measures in place for counting of votes in the Uttar Pradesh Gram Panchayat elections amidst rising Covid-19 cases.
The appeal was filed by one Sachin Yadav challenging the Allahabad High Court order which allowed the Uttar Pradesh Gram Panchayat Elections to continue during this time.
Citing the rise in cases and the consequent toll on the healthcare sector, the plea urged for a stay on the Allahabad High Court order which allows the election to continue and, and sought a deferral of the polls till the situation in the State returns to normal. (ANI)