Updated: May 21, 2021 1:00:43 pm
What if? That’s the question haunting Ajay Rohit, a 25-year-old engineering graduate, for the past 15 days.
What if he had stopped his father Brajlal Ahirwar, a 58-year-old government teacher, from reporting for poll duty in Madhya Pradesh’s Damoh? “My father wished that the Assembly bypoll would be postponed. But he also believed that he would not get Covid as they were all given PPE kits,” said Rohit.
Ahirwar returned from his assignment after voting was held on April 17, developed a fever two days later and died on May 5 at the district hospital. A day later, his 51-year-old wife Pyari Bai, who was rushed to the hospital after testing positive, also died.
In a chilling replay of the Covid fallout from the panchayat polls in Uttar Pradesh that month, the Damoh administration has listed Ahirwal as one of the 17 government teachers who succumbed to the virus after being involved in bypoll duty.
“We have so far received applications of 24 teachers who have prima facie succumbed to Covid after being put on election duty. Of these, six were actively involved while others were engaged in affiliated work. So far, we have recognised 17 teachers to have succumbed to the virus. We are verifying the other applications to be sent to the election commission for compensation,” said District Collector Krishna Chaitanya.
The bypoll in Damoh was necessitated by the defection of sitting Congress MLA Rahul Lodhi to the BJP last October. Lodhi was among the 26 Congress MLAs who switched sides but he did so after the BJP had toppled Kamal Nath’s Congress government in the state.
The election campaign was heated with Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Nath, who is now the state Congress chief, among several leaders, including Jyotraditya Scindia, Digvijaya Singh, Uma Bharti and Union MoS Prahlad Singh Patel, holding road shows and addressing large public gatherings.
The impact was visible. On April 1, Damoh had 11 new cases and 116 active cases with a total caseload of 3,100 and 93 deaths. The caseload rose to 3,774 on April 16. Yet, Damoh was the only district to be left out of statewide Covid curbs imposed in urban areas from April 7. The curbs came into force in the district only on April 19, two days after voting.
By then, it was too late, as a string of political leaders started testing positive.
* On April 15, Congress candidate Ajay Tandon, who went on to win the election, tested positive. The same day, Scindia and Chouhan cut short their campaign.
* On April 19, Congress’ bypoll in-charge, Brajendra Singh Rathode, tested positive and died on May 2.
* On April 29, Congress’ Mahila Morcha state chief, Mandvi Chouhan, who had returned to Bhopal from Damoh with a fever, died. “She was taking all precautions, using sanitised cars and maintaining social distance. She walked to the hospital herself but could not come out alive,” said Vikram Chouhan, her son.
There were more. Seva Dal’s Martande Singh succumbed to the virus. Congress councillor Ashish Patel lost his brother and father, and the party’s district vice president Lal Chandrai his wife.
According to BJP’s Damoh district chief, Pritam Lodhi, at least six of the BJP’s local leaders — former district chief Dev Narayan Shrivastav, Hemraj Rathode, former district chief of Kisan Morcha Kishori Patel, sarpanch Hemraj Rathode, Bina Nagar president Anita Khatik and Yuva Morcha’s Sandeep Panthi — succumbed to the virus after the bypolls.
On May 19, Damoh had 43 new cases and 1,375 active cases with a total caseload of 7,465 and 130 deaths.
According to the state’s Covid bulletin, Damoh recorded 20 deaths in April and only three until May 17. Aarif Anjum, state president of Madhya Pradesh Government Teachers Association (GTA), and Manu Mishra, Congress’ Damoh district chief, have questioned the official toll.
“There was a three-day training programme for teachers, which was attended by hundreds. Many had contracted the virus from there. We found that at least 26 teachers had died of Covid after being involved in election-related duty. But initially, the state only recognised six. Now they are looking at others who contracted the virus through this training,” said Anjum.
Mishra, who was hospitalised during the campaign along with his wife and son after testing positive, said he has started compiling a list of Congress workers who have died due to Covid after the by-polls. “At least 17 party workers have died in one block. We will get the complete list in a few days,” said Mishra.
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