The Supreme Court on Saturday refused to stay the counting of votes for panchayat polls in Uttar Pradesh and said no victory rallies will be permitted during the counting or after the process is over. At a special urgent hearing, which took place on a court holiday ahead of the counting beginning on Sunday, a bench comprising Justices A M Khanwilkar and Hrishikesh Roy also asked the State Election Commission to fasten responsibility on gazetted officers for observing COVID-19 protocols at counting centres across the state.
The operating protocol mentioned will be adhered to by all the stakeholders as well as duty holders without any exception, the bench said.
”We decline to interfere in these petitions and for the same reason also with the fresh writ petition filed before this court, while recording assurance given by state government through counsel as well as the State Election Commission, UP that necessary measures have been put in place in terms of the guidelines issued from time to time, including the recent notifications dated April 29, 2021, and April 30, 2021, issued by the State Election Commission,” the bench said.
It also asked the State Election Commission to make appropriate changes in the notification issued by it on April 29 so that protocol for safety and security is followed.
The bench also noted that the State Election Commission has also agreed to notify the names of people who will be in charge of the counting centres concerned and who will be made accountable for any lapse regarding the compliance with the guidelines and the assurances recorded herein. ”That designated official shall be the nodal officer to whom the candidates contesting the election or anyone interested in giving suggestion for improvising the facilities in and around the counting centres can be pursued,” the apex court said.
The bench said government officials, candidates and their agents will have to produce RT-PCR tests to show they are COVID-19 negative before entering the counting centres. ”Needless to observe that the norms specified for candidates and authorised representatives of the candidates in the notification dated April 19, 2021, to produce RT-PCR or Rapid Antigen Test report or COVID-19 vaccination completion report would also apply to officials deployed or entering at the concerned counting centres as in the case of the candidates and their authorised representatives,” it said.
The bench also directed the state government to ensure there will be a strict curfew in and around the counting centres till the process goes on and that no victory rallies are carried out after the announcement of results.
”It is stated across the bar that additionally strict curfew would be imposed in areas as may be notified by the authorities concerned, in particular, in and around the counting centres and will be continued until the counting process of the counting centre concerned is completed in all respects, including the declaration of results. ”That will ensure that only the candidates and their authorised representatives would be able to visit/enter the counting centres and gathering of the general public is avoided,” the bench said.
The court passed the order after taking note of several notifications and assurances from the UP SEC that COVID-19 protocols would be followed at the 829 counting centres. It said the poll panel should preserve CCTV footage of counting centres in the state till the Allahabad High Court concludes its hearing on related petitions before it. ”We also place on record the undertaking given by the UP SEC through counsel that the CCTV recording at the designated counting areas and centres will be done and duly preserved until such time, as the HC may direct in the proceedings being PIL pending before it,” it said.
While disposing of the petitions, the apex court said it will be open to the parties to make an application before the HC in the pending proceedings for further directions, as may be required from time to time.
During the hearing, advocate Shoeb Alam, appearing for petitioner Sachin Yadav, said there are lakhs of candidates in the fray. The congregation of a huge number of poll officials and counting agents at the counting centres should be avoided in view of the surge of infections, he said. Yadav had challenged an Allahabad High Court order allowing panchayat elections to continue in the state.
His lawyer Alam said there should be adequate safeguards as the counting process will go on for a couple of days. Over 60 crore ballot papers were printed and have to be counted, he pointed out.
He also referred to a note from the UP primary teachers association saying more than 700 people had lost their lives during the polls. Appearing for the UP SEC, Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati said directions have been issued from time to time and senior officials have been given the responsibility for maintaining COVID-appropriate behaviour. She gave an assurance that there would be strict compliance of such behaviour at the counting centres and the counting would be done in shifts so there are no congregations at any particular time.