The Bihar government has petitioned the state election commission to make Covid vaccination mandatory for people who want to contest the upcoming panchayat polls in the state.
The request is being seen as an attempt to boost the state’s vaccination drive, which is lagging because of hesitancy and resistance from people, especially in the rural areas, and to check the spread of the infection during the elections.
“Those who want to contest the polls but are not getting vaccinated should stay at home instead of moving around campaigning and spreading the coronavirus,” Bihar panchayati raj minister Samrat Choudhary told The Telegraph.
Asked whether making vaccination mandatory for poll contestants might fall foul of the Constitution, state election commission (SEC) secretary Yogendra Ram said he hadn’t seen the government letter but indicated such a demand might be accepted in the public interest.
“We don’t want a repeat of Uttar Pradesh here,” he said, referring to the April panchayat polls in the heartland state where not just contestants and voters but over 1,600 schoolteachers assigned poll duty are believed to have died of Covid.
The Bihar panchayat elections, which were to be held by June 15, have been postponed because of the pandemic and a delay in procuring electronic voting machines. But with the Covid second wave waning, Yogendra indicated the polls could be held after the rains.
Samrat said: “I formally requested the SEC on Saturday not to permit non-vaccinated people to contest the panchayat elections. The Disaster Management Act is in force and everybody should cooperate.”
He added: “Around 25 lakh people are expected to contest the polls. These are people considered aware about the situation. They will travel house to house and hold small meetings canvassing votes. If they don’t take the vaccine, what will the others learn from them? They need to conform to the government’s policies while running the local self-government.”
Told about possible constitutional difficulties and reminded that the central and state governments had not made vaccination compulsory for everybody, the minister defended his stand.
“Making a demand is not banned under the Constitution. It’s up to the SEC to accept or reject it. Everybody should do their bit to tackle the disease,” he said.
Yogendra said: “We’ll have to first see the letter. Even if the demand is for mandatory Covid vaccination for the candidates, we might accept it in the interest of public safety.”
He added: “We have the example of Uttar Pradesh which suffered high casualties when the panchayat elections were held during the pandemic. Many candidates too died of the virus. We don’t want it to happen in our state.”
Yogendra appealed to all voters to take the vaccine shots.
“The monsoon season has begun, so the panchayat polls will be held after it. We appeal to all the voters to take the Covid vaccine,” he said.
The panchayat polls will involve 8,386 panchayats, block samitis and zilla parishads across the state, covering 2.59 lakh posts in six categories: mukhiya (panchayat headman or chief), ward members, sarpanch (village court head), panch (village court member), and others at the block and district levels.