Over a hundred decomposed bodies found floating in the Ganga, spreading panic across several districts; nearly 700 teachers reportedly dead after contracting COVID while on panchayat election duty; rampant shortage in supply of oxygen, ventilators and other medical equipment, crippling the health-care system; unending accounts of neglect towards critically ill patients, highlighted even by Union Ministers, MPs and MLAs; deliberate reduction in testing; a Chief Minister and a government not just unresponsive to the cries for help and relief but bent upon cracking down on those who raise their voice and speak the truth. The state of affairs in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous State, in the first two weeks of May 2021 is an example of how not to handle a pandemic.
Hundreds of personnel in the State Health Department lived their own nightmare as they tried to address the alarming limitations and their terrible consequences on the ground. Speaking to Frontline over phone, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer serving in Ghazipur, eastern Uttar Pradesh, said: “Ever since the second COVID wave wreaked havoc, our days and nights are spent hoping that tomorrow will turn out better by some miracle. But that never happens. We have to face newer and bigger problems with each passing day.” The officer had spent a whole day and night grappling with multiple shortages in the government health system in the district, but the next morning he had to rush to the banks of the Ganga as residents spotted bodies floating in the river.
A day earlier, 71 bodies, many of them bloated and decomposed, had been found in the Ganga at Bihar’s Buxar district where the river forms the inter-State boundary with Uttar Pradesh. The authorities in Bihar alleged that health staff in districts such as Ballia in Uttar Pradesh, around 50 km north of Buxar, were dumping bodies in the river. They recounted residents as saying that they saw government staff using excavators and trolleys to bring the bodies to the river.
Also read: Bihar and the second wave of COVID-19
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh and its local administration in Ballia denied the allegations and accused the government staff in Bihar, where Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) heads a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Ministry, of indulging in foul play. It was amid this acrimonious debate that more bodies were found in the Ganga at Ghazipur.
The IAS officer and his team worked through the day to locate 25 bodies in the river flowing through Ghazipur. Neither the officials in Bihar nor the ones in Uttar Pradesh were able to confirm immediately whether the bodies were of COVID victims, as the tests were taking time. According to several citizens of Ghazipur and Ballia who spoke to Frontline , some Hindu communities of eastern Uttar Pradesh ritually dispose of bodies by immersing them in the river. “This is an old practice, and this too needs to be looked into while probing these deaths for confirmation on COVID,” the IAS officer added.
Death of 700 teachers
Meanwhile, teachers’ unions of Uttar Pradesh say that nearly 700 teachers who were on election duty for the local body elections died of COVID-related complications. Leaders of three major teachers’ unions—the Uttar Pradesh Prathmik Shiksha Sangh, the Uttar Pradesh Shikshak Mahasangh and the Rashtriya Shaikshik Mahasangh Uttar Pradesh—blame the government, and especially the Chief Minister, for criminal negligence in causing the deaths. According to them, the Chief Minister repeatedly ignored their appeals to get all election officers vaccinated before election day.
The panchayat elections were held in four phases on April 15, 19, 26 and 29 in the 75 districts of Uttar Pradesh. Around three lakh teachers were deployed mainly at 80,762 polling booths where 10.5 crore people cast their votes. Virendra Mishra, chief of the Rashtriya Shaikshik Mahasangh, told Frontline that he had written to the Chief Minister on March 27 requesting mandatory vaccination of all teachers who were allotted election duty, but the government turned a blind eye to the appeal.
Also read: India's real COVID-19 death toll
He said: “Later, on April 12, we approached the State Election Commission seeking postponement of the panchayat elections since the teachers were not provided with provisions for treatment or at least medical insurance. But nothing came out of that too. The teachers’ associations moved the Supreme Court on April 24 to demand that the counting of ballots, which was scheduled for May 2, be stayed. Ultimately, the teachers agreed to participate in the counting as the State government assured them, through back-to-back circulars on April 29 and 30, that mandatory RT-PCR and oximeter tests would be conducted at the counting centres and that there would be CCTV recordings and monitoring of counting. But these assurances were also not fulfilled.”
Dinesh Chandra Sharma, leader of the Uttar Pradesh Shikshak Mahasangh, said that as early as April 26 there were reports of over 500 deaths of teachers who did election duty. “Against this background, I wrote to the Chief Minister once again seeking postponement of counting. We also requested a compensation of Rs.50 lakh each for teachers’ families in case of death and Rs.20 lakh for treatment if any teacher got infected. These requests too did not get any response from the Chief Minister,” he told Frontline .
Union Minister’s letter to Chief Minister
The leaders, however, are not surprised with the Chief Minister’s nonchalance. “Even senior BJP leaders such as Union Labour Minister Santosh Gangwar have not got a thorough response from Yogi Adityanath ji , when Gangwar ji raised concerns about shortage of medical oxygen, alleged blackmarketing of essential medical equipment such as ventilators, and the difficulties COVID patients were facing in getting a bed in hospitals in his parliamentary constituency of Bareilly. Of course, Gangwar ji ’s letter was acknowledged, but that is not the same as getting a comprehensive and creative response. Our information is that not much has happened. In such a situation, how can lowly creatures like us expect the Chief Minister to write back? No chance at all,” said Dinesh Chandra Sharma.
In his letter, Santosh Gangwar drew the Chief Minister’s attention to how patients were not getting immediate medical attention despite testing positive for COVID. The letter says: “I have received complaints that in Bareilly, patients going to government hospitals are not being admitted as the hospital is asking them to get a referral letter from the district hospital. Because of this, the patient keeps running around from one place to another and in the process the patient’s oxygen level decreases and health situation worsens.”
Several BJP MPs, MLAs and Cabinet Ministers in the State had also written to the Chief Minister right from the beginning of the month highlighting shortage of beds, medical oxygen and other critical care issues. As for the demand of the teachers’ unions on compensation, the Yogi Adityanath government has stated that it will give Rs.30 lakh each to the families of the deceased polling officers. The teachers’ unions are of the view that this is inadequate.
A ‘Modi Bhakt’ who died without help
The plight of many individuals and their battles against COVID have come to symbolise the indifference and lack of empathy that permeates the medical administration and governance mechanisms in Uttar Pradesh. One case that captured the attention of the entire State and large parts of north India is that of 42-year-old Amit Jaiswal, a resident of Agra. Jaiswal was a dedicated, long-standing Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) worker who was followed on Twitter by Narendra Modi himself. He died of COVID in a private hospital in Mathura on April 29, after failing to find a hospital bed in Agra.
Jaiswal and his family had hoped that the Prime Minister would “intervene” when they tagged him and Yogi Adityanath in a tweet from Jaiswal’s account seeking help to get Remdesivir injections. The post also said they were “facing issues” in his treatment. This, too, evoked no response, and Jaiswal died 10 days after testing positive. The virus claimed the life of his mother, too, a few days later.
Jaiswal’s sister Sonu Alagh told mediapersons that he was a self-proclaimed “Modi bhakt”. His WhatsApp display photograph was that of Modi and he would threaten to beat up anyone even remotely critical of the Prime Minister. He flaunted in his Twitter bio that Modi followed him. All this gave his family hope that the Prime Minister or the State government would respond to their call for help.
While even direct appeals to the Chief Minister and the Prime Minister go largely unnoticed, the Yogi Adityanath administration has continued with its vigil on critical comments from the public on the government’s record and is cracking down on individuals and groups that dare to speak up. The latest high-profile crackdown was on Surya Pratap Singh, a Varanasi-based retired IAS officer. A first information report (FIR) has been filed against him for “spreading rumours” on social media. His crime was that he tried to draw the Chief Minister’s attention towards an alleged criminal neglect by some officials in Varanasi.
The 1982-batch IAS officer tweeted about how a body was reportedly fished out of a drain near a local government hospital. It was found to be of a patient who had died of COVID in the hospital; the patient had apparently gone missing from the hospital for two days. Surya Pratap Singh shared a video regarding this patient and sought to tell the Chief Minister that actions beyond periodic visits to Varanasi were required to tackle the COVID situation. He posted on Twitter that the State wanted results and urged Yogi Adityanath to work to reduce the grievances of poor people. Apparently, Yogi Adityanath was incensed by this, especially because the tweet was published coinciding with his recent visit to Varanasi, Modi’s parliamentary constituency, to hold a review meeting of the COVID situation.
The Varanasi police argue that the video Surya Pratap Singh shared to buttress his arguments was “fake and a year-old video clip”. The retired bureaucrat, known for his integrity and forthrightness, has reportedly refused to retract his position despite the police moves. The action against him is, by all indications, a continuation of the moves initiated against many others, including social activists and journalists, who were critical of COVID mismanagement across the State.
Amid all these developments, the Chief Minister and his associates in the Ministry, as well as senior officers, make repeated claims that the number of COVID cases is coming down in the State and that the test positivity rate is dipping. A number of Ministers, including Health Minister Jai Pratap Singh, have consistently argued that the second wave in Uttar Pradesh was not caused by the Kumbh Mela pilgrims but by migrant workers returning home for the second time since March 2020 from States such as Maharashtra, Punjab and Delhi. Jai Pratap Singh said: “People from the State, who are working outside, generally return for Holi or for crop cutting, around March every year. This is when the problem started for us. Indeed, the control that we had achieved over the first wave was good but we do admit that we were not fully prepared when the second wave began. But things are falling into place now and we are in the process of once again gaining control over the situation.”