Chief Election Commissioner of India Sunil Arora on Monday said the upcoming Assembly elections in Bihar will be held as per schedule and ruled out any possibility of a delay that may be necessitated because of the coronavirus outbreak. In an interview with India Today, Arora said the panel’s aim was to ensure the safety and health of voters and workers while adhering to timelines and SOPs of the electoral process.

“Necessary preparations to conduct Bihar Assembly elections in time are underway at the Election Commission, state and district level,” he told the channel. “Since elections are being held during a pandemic, all instructions for electoral processes would be suitably modified to ensure requisite arrangements of social distancing, sanitisation, disinfection, and masks or gloves etc.”

Arora said the Election Commission has introduced various guidelines to contain the spread of Covid-19. This included an increase in the number of polling stations by setting up 1.8 lakh additional booths, and limiting the number of voters per polling station to a maximum of 1,000 people.

Bihar’s chief electoral officer has also been provided an additional number of EVMs, including VVPATs, keeping the pandemic in mind, the CEC added. Besides this, the optional postal ballot voting facility has been extended to senior citizens over 80 years of age, disabled voters, electors engaged in essential services and voters who are coronavirus positive or suspects, living in quarantine.

On July 16, the Election Commission had decided not to extend the postal ballot facility to citizens between the ages of 65 and 80 for the Bihar elections. The panel cited logistical and manpower constraints as well as safety protocols to justify its decision.

The CEC said that the poll panel is continuously working in tandem with the political parties to chalk out a contingency plan in case of a surge in Covid-19 infections in the state. “Regular reviews are held with relevant updates and inputs from local and central administration authorities,” he added.

“To ensure that voter turnout does not get affected in forthcoming elections, we shall step up the use of digital technologies in voter awareness, outreach and training,” Arora said. This included, bulk SMS, social media, television advertising, community radio, National Voter Service Portal and the Voter Helpline App.

The Bihar Assembly elections are expected to be held by November this year, followed by the West Bengal polls early in 2021. Opposition parties in Bihar have repeatedly urged the Election Commission to assure voters that the elections would not turn into a coronavirus “super-spreader” event.

Some parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Lok Janshakti Party also urged the poll panel to postpone the election in the state. The LJP wrote to the Election Commission saying it was not advisable to “put lives of lakhs of people at risk” by holding the election amid a pandemic, the Hindustan Times reported.

Congress leader Akhilesh Prasad Singh had on Sunday also said the current situation in Bihar is not conducive for elections, ANI reported. “The safety of a person and society is the topmost important,” he said. “The current situation in Bihar and the rest of the country is pathetic. In Bihar every third family has Covid-19 case.”

Bihar has reported 54,088 coronavirus cases, including 397 deaths as of Tuesday, according to the Union health ministry.

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