Sanjay Pandey had always been careful. After the onset of the pandemic, the schoolteacher from the city of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, never stepped out without a mask, and washed all his groceries before bringing them into the house. His daughter Ruchi recalled how he discouraged guests from crowding his house. He got his first Covid-19 vaccination shot in March 2021 and was due for his second at the end of April.

In early April, Pandey received a letter from the state government, informing him that he was being assigned election duty for the upcoming panchayat elections.

Fifty-five-year-old Pandey was a devoted teacher and headmaster and always went the extra mile when it came to work. But the order left him uneasy – he had had an eye lens implant surgery the previous month and was still recovering. His eyes still hurt, and he did not feel up to the job. So he wrote a letter to the authorities, asking to be exempted.

“They didn’t allow it,” said Shashikiran, his other daughter.

His family urged him to stay back anyway. Pandey had been getting news about his colleagues dying in different parts of the state. “But he was scared that if he skipped duty then the authorities would mess with his retirement and cause trouble later,” his son Anand said.

On April 9 and 10, Pandey attended a training session for the election work, which typically includes tasks such as manning polling booths, verifying voters’ details and guiding them through the voting process. He had been assigned work for the following week, on April 15.

On the evening of April 15, Pandey returned home, complained that he was feeling hot, and took off his shirt. A little while later, he complained that he was feeling cold. His wife wrapped two blankets around him to stop him from shivering. The next day, he developed a cough.

The second wave of Covid-19 had set in by this time, and case numbers were shooting up across the country. Anand tried to get a doctor to visit the house, but none were available. Since the family was unsure if Pandey had Covid-19, they were worried about putting him at risk by taking him to a hospital.

When Pandey’s condition did not improve over the next few days, his family sought to admit him to hospitals around their home. But they were all only taking in Covid-19 patients and demanded to see a positive test for Pandey.

Getting a test, however, proved impossible.

“There was one testing laboratory, but the line was never-ending,” Anand said. “We tried to take him there but he was having such a hard time, we figured it was making him feel worse.”

The next day, the line was as long. The family sought the help of an unregistered doctor in their locality, who prescribed some medicines. But then Pandey’s oxygen level began to drop, and the family began scrambling for an oxygen cylinder. “I was so desperate I was ready to pay even one lakh rupees to get one,” Anand said. The family could not procure a cylinder. They managed to consult a doctor, but only through a video call, and bought Pandey the medicines he needed.

In the early hours of April 24, Anand’s mother banged on his door and urged him to rush to his father’s room. He found his father struggling to get up from the bed because he needed to use the restroom. Moments later, he collapsed, unable to walk. Anand sat by his side, holding a nebuliser to his face. When it seemed like Pandey was feeling a little better, Anand got up to leave.

A couple of minutes later, at around 2.30 am, Pandey died.

Sanjay Pandey (left) was a devoted teacher and headmaster in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. In April 2021, he was assigned to panchayat election duty, and died soon after, from Covid-19. Photo courtesy: Pandey family.

“I’m sure if he had not been forced to go for duty, he would have never gotten the virus,” said Ruchi, tearfully.

“How can they force someone to work when they clearly have a health problem?” said Shashikiran, as her eyes welled up. “If he had been permitted to skip it, he would have been alive today. How can people be so devoid of humanity?”

Anand, who still carries around Pandey’s phone, played one of the last call recordings on it. In the recording, Pandey is heard asking a senior official permission to leave at the end of his duty. But the official orders him to stay back. “They all knew that he was already feeling unwell,” Anand said.

Hearing Pandey’s voice, one of his grandchildren ran into the room, buried his head in his grandmother’s lap and began to weep. The women in the house also all broke down immediately.

“For the rest of the world, he is just another number, a Covid case,” said Shashikiran, as we sat in the family’s home on a hot April afternoon, almost a year later. “But for us, he was our whole world.”

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The second wave of Covid-19 was particularly brutal in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which also has some of the worst social indicators in the country. On a health index prepared by the central government think-tank NITI Aayog, Uttar Pradesh ranked nineteenth among 19 large states in 2019-’20. This isn’t surprising: its health spending is among the lowest in the country.

The pandemic further exposed these deficits, as the state’s testing capacity was quickly overwhelmed and hospital beds ran out in the deadly second wave. In April 2021, the law minister wrote a scathing letter to the health secretary of the state, criticising the “indifferent” attitude of health authorities. In the letter, he claimed that though the city of Lucknow needed at least 17,000 Covid test kits daily, its laboratories had hardly 10,000 available each day.

Instead of acknowledging the crisis, the strongman chief minister, Adityanath, threatened action against those who complained of shortages.

It was during this time that the Uttar Pradesh government chose to hold four phases of panchayat elections – on April 15, 19, 26 and 29. Ahead of these dates, election workers, including teachers, were called to attend training sessions.

At this stage itself, the Uttar Pradesh Primary Teachers’ Union and the Uttar Pradesh Teachers’ Federation tried unsuccessfully to intervene. Writing to the State Election Commission on April 12, they stated that the pictures coming in from election training centres were “terrifying”.

“It is clear that no rules and regulations regarding safety from Covid-19 are being observed,” the letter noted. “If one were to look at the number of staff members, teachers and officers attending the training sessions one would feel that they are sitting on a Covid-19 infection time-bomb.”

The teachers pointed out that it was absurd that at the same time as people were being fined Rs 1,000 if they were found not wearing masks, and were being warned against having more than 100 people at weddings, teachers were being forced to gather in large numbers at training centres. “On the day of the polls, in a single polling booth one presiding officer and three voting officers will come in direct contact with close to 1000 voters, none of whom have been through any tests related to Covid-19,” the letter stated.

An attempt to seek judicial intervention had also proved unsuccessful. A Public Interest Litigation filed at the Allahabad High Court came up for hearing on April 7, 2021, seeking the postponement of the elections, owing to the surge in Covid-19 cases. The court turned down the petition and stated in its order: “According to the petitioner, the elections would be causing enormous injury to the health of the public at large and that would be in contravention to Article 21 of the Constitution of India. We do not find any merit in the argument advanced.”

On April 29, 2021 a teacher at a polling booth in Shahjahanpur took a video of herself as she lay in a corner of the room, coughing and struggling to breathe. The teacher, Aparna Mahavar, who posted the video in a teachers’ WhatsApp group, accuses the government of not providing any medical support, and describes how she was not being allowed to return home even though she was so sick. The video went viral.

Despite all the evidence of great distress, teachers were also asked to attend counting duty, which began on May 2. On May 1, India was seeing almost 4,00,000 Covid-19 cases a day.

“With so many residents from the cities returning to their villages to vote, the spread was higher. That could have been prevented as well if the elections had been postponed,” Kamlesh Yadav, a teacher and activist, said. “What to do, people care more about votes than lives.”

On May 16, 2021, the Uttar Pradesh Teachers Federation released a list of names of 1,621 teachers who had died after election duty. Pandey’s was among them.

After news began to hit television screens of the large number of deaths of those who had been assigned election duty, the teachers associations and families began to raise demands for compensation. On June 2, the Uttar Pradesh government issued a set of criteria under which it would pay an ex-gratia amount of Rs 30 lakh to families that lost a member to Covid-19 after they had attended panchayat election duty.

The government also stated that even if the patient had developed complications from Covid-19, after recovering and testing negative, they could still avail of compensation. It specified that individuals needed to have died within 30 days of their election duty, which included the days of training. According to a spokesperson of the state government, a total of 1,177 “employees of the Basic Education Department” who had died following election duty were awarded this compensation.

But many were disqualified because families had to prove that their relative had been Covid positive, either with a CT scan, a blood report, an antigen test or an RT-PCR test.

Pandey’s name did not figure in the list of those whose families were eligible for compensation, because they could not supply this proof.

“It is ridiculous to expect all the families to have a Covid positive certificate,” Anand argued. “Where could we have gone?”

No amount of money is going to help them overcome the loss of their father, Anand said. “But there are EMIs, loans and bills to pay,” he explained. “He was taking care of all of those things. If we had received the compensation money, at least the burden would have been lighter.”

The teachers that spoke to all said they had not even been provided personal protective equipment during their work. “He only wore his mask,” said 18-year-old Pulkit Raj, whose father Puran Masi was one of the teachers assigned election work. “They did not provide the Covid kit.”

Masi, who was from the city of Ayodhya, taught Hindi to Class 11 and 12 students. He was the first in his family to land a government job and enjoyed teaching immensely. “Work always came above everything else for him,” his wife Leelavathi Devi said. “Even till the very end.”

Masi was also diabetic and was on medication, which put him at a higher risk from Covid-19. “But he was still going for duty,” Raj said.

A day after finishing his election duty on April 15, Masi started to feel slightly unwell. He decided to take a Covid-19 test. The antigen test turned out negative. But he developed a fever, which worsened over the next two days. Masi consulted a clinic near his home and was advised to take paracetamol. He felt better the following day. But soon, he started to feel weak again. During this time, Masi was called for vote-counting duty.

The teachers’ associations had tried to intervene at the stage of counting too – after their April 12 letter, they sent another to the election commission on April 28, this time requesting that counting be postponed. “The teachers and staff who have just returned after polling and have been struggling with recent infections are now being posted on duty for counting of votes and training sessions are being conducted amidst terrible chaos and with absolute disregard for Covid-19 pandemic,” the representatives wrote in their letter. “All these only add to the widespread fear of death among teachers and staff members.”

This letter, too, had no effect, and teachers were summoned for the work. By this time, Masi’s condition had already worsened significantly.

“He was lying in bed and we could make out that he was finding it difficult to breathe,” Devi said. “But despite that, he was considering going for duty. He was scared about missing it.” She begged him not to go, and even demanded to speak to the school authorities herself to convince them to let her husband stay home.

“Finally he agreed and told them that he was too sick to come in for work,” Raj said. When his condition began to deteriorate, Masi asked Raj to take him to the hospital. Raj checked with a government hospital near their home, but was told that all the beds were full. He then checked with private hospitals. “Not a single hospital had a bed available,” he recounted. So, Masi remained at home.

When his breathing worsened, they decided to check his oxygen levels. The normal level of oxygen in the blood, or the Spo2, is 95. Masi’s was 84. Raj tried again for beds: this time, hospitals were unwilling to admit him because they said they had run out of oxygen cylinders. “There was no doctor available to come to the house and check him either,” Raj said.

On April 27, Masi’s oxygen level plunged to 46.

The hunt for an oxygen cylinder began. Just the previous day, a friend of Masi’s who had been admitted to a hospital had died due to an oxygen shortage. Masi asked his brother to ask a friend who owned a welding shop for a cylinder. The man gave them his last remaining cylinder. “It was only when he realised how much better he was feeling after he used the oxygen cylinder that my father actually came to terms with how bad his condition was,” Raj said.

Pulkit Raj's father Puran Masi, a schoolteacher, died after being assigned election duty in April. Raj recounted that Masi had not been given any protection against Covid-19 other than a mask. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

It was Masi who suggested that he be taken for treatment to a government hospital at Ghazipur, about 250 km away. He had heard that the hospital there had oxygen. On April 27, Masi, Raj and another relative drove in their second-hand car to Ghazipur. When they arrived, the family was told that the hospital did not have oxygen but that they were willing to admit him.

Masi was admitted, but later decided it was no use staying at the hospital if it did not have oxygen. So the family moved him out, after signing an agreement with the hospital stating that it was their decision to do so.

At around 2 am on April 28, Raj left with his father in search of another hospital. At 3 am, Masi breathed his last.

They were in the middle of nowhere. “My uncle advised that we take papa back to our village in Ambedkar Nagar district,” Raj said.

He couldn’t muster the courage to call his mother and break the news: she only heard later in the day through another relative.

When they were leaving for Ghazipur, Leelavathi had insisted on accompanying her husband and son. But Masi had refused. “He hugged me, told me not to worry and said to stay home and take care of my daughters,” Leelavathi said through tears. “He said he would be back soon. I still cannot believe sometimes that he’s gone. It all happened so quickly.”

Even when he left, he did not look weak, she said. “He was a healthy man. Just look at that photo,” she said, pointing to a picture of her husband that hung on their wall, in which he stood outdoors, smiling.

The use of teachers for work other than teaching is far from unusual in India. A 2018 study conducted in five states found that government teachers spent only 19.1% of their time teaching – the rest of the time was spent in election duty, data collection, polio vaccination campaigns and other government work. “But who cares about that?” said Kamlesh Yadav. “It is the poor children who join government schools and if they are not receiving a good quality education, nobody will ask any questions.”

The families of teachers that spoke to said that teachers were scared to skip duty because they feared there would be serious consequences. “Teachers are warned and threatened often,” Yadav said. “If they miss duty, the government pulls them up and takes action against them. ”

Teachers have to submit a medical certificate if they need to absent themselves from such work. “In case they cannot submit it, they will have to face the authorities,” Yadav said. During Covid, Yadav said he heard authorities were unwilling to grant leave even to sick teachers because they feared it would lead to others demanding leave also. “There was so much pressure that sick teachers ended up going for duty,” he said.

When it comes to compensation, however, the government has dragged its feet. In response to demands for compensation for the families of those teachers who had died, the Uttar Pradesh government on May 19 claimed only three teachers were eligible for compensation. It argued that they could only consider those who had literally died while doing their duty: the three teachers had collapsed and died while in the middle of election work.

Teachers were furious. “What about those who returned from duty and died in their homes? How could they have not been counted,” asked Tribhuvan Singh, a teacher from Kanpur and the vice president of the Uttar Pradesh Primary Contract Teachers Association.

The state election commission did not respond to queries from about the decision to conduct elections in the midst of the pandemic. A state government spokesperson responded to queries about the rationale behind the policies for compensation and providing jobs to families, reiterating the policies.

It was in response to outrage from the teachers’ community that the government expanded the category of teachers whose families were eligible for compensation to include those who died of Covid-19 within 30 days of election duty.

But even with this relaxation of the rules, the requirement of proof of Covid disqualified many families, like Raj’s, from compensation.

Raj, who is 18 and in the second year of his BSc, will be eligible for a teaching post in the “compassionate” category under an Uttar Pradesh government policy for the families of government servants who die while still in service. The state’s education minister reiterated in May 2020 that the family members of teachers who died of Covid after performing poll duties could apply for their jobs if they had a BEd degree or had a teacher training certificate and passed an eligibility test. Those who didn’t have these qualifications would be eligible for class three and class four jobs, such as of clerks and peons.

When we spoke in early April, almost a year after his father’s death, Raj had made up his mind to apply for a teacher’s job in this category though it wasn’t the career he had dreamed of earlier. This will allow him to support his elder sister Shreya, who is 20 and in the first year of a Master’s degree in microbiology. “I want to let my sister pursue her passion like my father wished,” he said. He also intends to support his two other sisters, Shreya and Yashasvi, who are 12 and nine.

The families of contract teachers who died are not given this benefit – though they are entitled to compensation. This is in keeping with a broader discrimination against contract teachers in the state, as elsewhere in the country. A 2020 paper noted that what had started as a “stop-gap solution has become a permanent feature of staffing of public schools in many states.” The measure is used to “reduce the financial commitment of the states and to also open up a highly discretionary (and prone to abuse) alternative to the appointment of teachers in the regular cadre with full employment status,” the paper noted.

These teachers shoulder the same responsibilities as permanent teachers, including assignments like election duty. But they are not entitled to any benefits, such as pensions and insurance.

“We do the same amount of work but we get paid 10,000 rupees while permanent teachers get up to 70,000,” said Tribhuvan Singh. “Along with several other benefits that come with a permanent government job, like the provident fund.”

Singh was instrumental in putting together a list of contract teachers who died during the second wave. A total of 230 teachers figured in this list. Of them, only 145 received compensation.

Pooja Devi, whose husband Gyan Prakash Bharti died on May 4, has a college degree, but doesn’t have a teacher training qualification. Her husband’s school is, therefore, only offering her the position of a peon. “I don’t want to be a peon, I think my husband would want me to be given a post I deserve,” she said.

She has decided to complete the training programme that will qualify her for a teacher’s job.

It has been a year since his death but Pooja has also not been given her husband’s pension so far. “The authorities are saying it will start coming in a few months,” she said.

Bharti had died in Hariharpur Rani, in Shravasti district, where his school was located, away from his family home in Salempur, in Lakhimpur Kheri district. He had dropped off Pooja and their two children in Lakhimpur Kheri in the middle of April because Covid-19 was spreading rapidly and he wanted them to stay safe. He was assigned vote-counting duty on May 2.

When Pooja spoke to him at 7 am on May 4, he told her he was running a fever, had some trouble breathing and was feeling weak. She assumed it was from exhaustion from the work.

At around 12 pm on May 4, she rang him to check whether he was feeling better. The phone kept ringing. She tried several more times, then rang the neighbours. They informed her that the front door was open and offered to check inside. She waited on the phone as they looked for him. “They told me that he seemed to have collapsed on the floor and asked me to hurry up and go there,” Pooja recalled. She rang up her brother-in-law and they drove to Shravasti, almost 200 km away.

When she got to the house she saw that her husband was still on the floor.

He was lying face down. His nose had bled, and he was not breathing. Next to him on the floor, a glass of tea had spilled. “Until I got there, I had no idea that he had died,” she said. Pooja recounted that the landlord had called the police, who were in the house and had forbidden anybody from touching the body.

Pooja Devi’s walls were adorned with pictures of her husband and their family. In one photo, Bharti was stylishly holding a jacket over his back and wearing shades. “Look at that photo. Look at how fat I look there, that was a few months before he died,” she said. “And look at me now.” Devi seemed to be half the weight now that she was in the photos. “Sometimes I get up in the night and just stare at the walls. Or I cry,” she said.

She has lost much of her appetite – the one thing she consumes most regularly is tea. “That I make several times a day and drink,” she said with a sad smile. “It was a love we both shared.”

She added, “That day he made a cup of tea for himself and placed it on the table. But I think he died even before he could take a sip.”

With the only earning member in their family gone, the responsibility of taking care of her 14-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter has now fallen on 33-year-old Pooja’s shoulders. When we spoke in April, she predicted that in about three months, the family would run out of the savings her husband had left them. “I have to start over again,” she said, as she fiddled with her dupatta.

The teacher training programme will take two years. “It seems like forever since I had to study for or attend an exam,” she said. “I’ve lost touch. But I have to do it for my children.”

Even jobs that don’t need such qualifications are not easy to secure. Arvind Kumar from Gopalpur in Faizabad had to struggle to get one after his father succumbed to Covid-19 on April 28. Kumar’s family, like those of Masi and Bharti’s, did not receive compensation because they did not possess a Covid certificate. “He died on that same bed,” Kumar said, pointing to a large cot next to the chairs we were seated on in his living room. “His condition worsened so quickly and no doctor was available to treat him. In a couple of days, he was gone.”

He currently works as a clerk in the same school where his father was one. “Every day I would go to meet the authorities and sit at the office all day,” he said. “But they would keep asking me to return the next day. Then the same thing would happen.” Finally, he decided that he had only one choice. “I realised nothing can happen without money, so that’s what I did,” he said. “I paid them money to get the process going.” texted the government spokesperson requesting a response to this allegation, but had not heard back as of the time of publishing – the story will be updated if we receive a response.

Like many survivors of teachers who died of Covid-19, Arvind Kumar and his sister Babita could not avail of compensation because they didn't have a Covid positive test for their father. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

The atmosphere at the Pandey’s home is still heavy with grief. Pandey’s wife Nirmala Pandey has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “She is on medication,” her son Anand said. “The doctor said it happens to people who have been through something horrific. She hasn’t been able to get over his death yet. She barely eats and keeps crying all the time.”

The family still felt isolated from their relatives and neighbours. “Nobody came for his funeral,” Anand said. “No doctor was willing to come and declare his death.”

Sanjay Pandey, his son Anand and some of Pandey's students. Authorities refused to exempt Pandey from election duty even though he was recovering from a surgery at the time. Photo courtesy: Pandey family

Pandey had three children and nine grandchildren and was the most loved member of his family. Anand showed me a stream of photos of the man laughing and playing with his grandchildren, and of him at school events and with his students. There were several selfies too. “He loved to take photos of himself,” Ruchi, his daughter said.

Yet, even a year later, nobody in the family has attempted to frame his picture to hang on the walls of their house. “We just haven’t been able to come to terms with his death,” Anand said. “And we don’t have the heart to hang a garland around his picture.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.