The Centre has told the Delhi High Court that it had in March this year asked all state governments and union territories (UTs) to ensure compliance with COVID-19-appropriate behavior in all gatherings.
The submission by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has come in response to a plea seeking to debar campaigners and candidates from campaigning in the assembly elections for repeatedly violating the mandatory guidelines, including wearing of masks, issued by the Election Commission (EC) and the Centre because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The petition by Vikram Singh, the former DGP of Uttar Pradesh and also the chairman of think tank Centre for Accountability and Systemic Change (CASC), has contended that despite the orders and guidelines of the Centre and EC, "election campaigning is going on in full swing, without any regard to the COVID-19 regulations".
In the affidavit filed through central government standing counsel Anurag Ahluwalia, the MHA has said that it has always made provisions in the guidelines issued to states and UTs under the Disaster Management Act 2005 for enforcement of COVID-19-appropriate behavior and strict adherence to standard operating procedures (SOPs).
The ministry has also said that it issued the 'Guidelines for Effective Control of COVID-19' on March 23 emphasizing that states and UTs "should strictly enforce test-track-treat protocol, COVID-19-appropriate behavior and prescribed SOPs on various activities like opening of schools, hotels, eateries, shopping malls, gyms, etc."
"Further, states and UTs, based on their assessment of the situation may impose local restrictions at district/sub-district and cities/ward level," the ministry has said.
Singh, represented by advocate Virag Gupta, had told the court that while announcing the elections, the EC in its notification mandated that “every person shall wear a face mask during every election-related activity”, but the same was "flouted with impunity" by the political parties, their leaders and campaigners during the rallies, public meetings and roadshows conducted during the ongoing pandemic.
He subsequently, moved two more applications, through advocate Gaurav Pathak, seeking directions to the EC to take action like imposing penalty and lodging FIRs against "star campaigners" and leaders of all political parties for allegedly violating COVID-19 norms during the assembly polls in West Bengal and for ensuring that masks are worn mandatorily by everyone involved in poll campaigns during the ongoing elections in various states and union territories.
Singh, in one of his applications, has also sought directions to the EC to widely publicize the guidelines issued by it and the ministry. The "unhindered and uncared-for all-out campaigning" has resulted in the rise in coronavirus cases in that state where the positivity rate has gone up from 5 percent to 24 percent, Singh has contended in one of his applications.
It has further contended that "the lackadaisical action of ECI in implementing its own guidelines and non-cancellation of permission given for roadshows and rallies is evident from the number of campaigners catching COVID".
"The Election Commission had guidelines for the conduct of general elections/bye-elections during COVID-19 published in August 2020, but failed to implement the same," Singh has said and sought prosecution of ECI officials "who failed to enforce their own mandatory COVID guidelines".
The assembly elections in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Puducherry were held in various phases. The polls started on March 27 and concluded on April 29.
Singh has claimed that there is "indirect discrimination" against the general public as fines are collected from them for violating COVID-19 norms, but no action is taken against politicians.
(With PTI inputs)