NEW DELHI: Facing flak over its alleged failure to ensure COVID-19 appropriate behaviour during poll campaigns, the Election Commission on Tuesday said enforcing provisions of the law to fight the pandemic is the responsibility of state disaster management bodies.
The commission also asserted that it has continuously directed state and district authorities to enforce instructions of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The poll panel underlined that on "no occasion" it takes over the task of a state disaster management authority (SDMA) for enforcement of instructions issued in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Election Commission's (EC) remarks came a day after the Madras High Court made harsh observations against it for failing to enforce COVID appropriate behaviour during poll campaigns.
Elections have been held in Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry.
The last of the eight phase West Bengal polls is on Thursday.
Counting for votes for all the assembly elections is on May 2.
The commission in a statement said while it will comply with all directions of the high court, on April 30, during the next hearing, it will apprise the bench of all the steps already taken by the poll panel for free, fair and safe elections.
It also said "statements being attributed to the Hon'ble High Court in certain sections of media" do not find mention in the order which was finally passed.
The EC was apparently referring to the oral observations made by the bench against it.
Referring to the petition that was moved in the Madras High Court to ensure "COVID safe" counting on May 2, the statement said that similar petitions concerning COVID-19 compliant behaviour during ongoing elections were filed, and the EC had already responded to them.
The commission gave out "legal and factual positions" to drive home the point that it did everything possible at its end to ensure "COVID safe" polls, it said.
The poll panel said enforcement of COVID-19 measures is the responsibility assigned to a state disaster management authority.
These measures include lockdowns, restriction or curtailment on public gatherings, and the authority's officers follow the Disaster Management Act, 2005, it said.
Public gatherings under the Act were not stopped during this (election campaign) period by the state authority, the EC said.
Whatever was prescribed, the EC directed all to adhere to it and in case of violation to book offenders under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, the statement said.
The EC continuously directed the state and district authorities to enforce the prevailing instructions of the NDMA and SDMA, it said.
Last year, amid lockdown and other enforcement measures under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, the commission completed the electoral exercise in Bihar, the statement said.
The Bihar assembly elections were held in October-November last year.
"The enforcement under the 2005 Act has to be ensured by the concerned SDMA and notified authorities under the Act. The commission has always emphasised in its August 21, 2020 and all subsequent instructions that the state authorities shall ensure COVID (norms) compliance in the matter of public gatherings for campaign purposes," it said.
The EC pointed out that it reiterated its instructions on February 26 this year while announcing the poll in the four states and the union territory, including Tamil Nadu.
"The campaign ended in April. Fortunately, the second wave of COVID-19 was yet to be visible fully by that time. Polling was conducted following all prescribed COVID appropriate measures on April 6 which witnessed good electoral participation with full compliance of norms by all concerned," it said.
The EC said these submissions were made before different high courts wherever opportunity was afforded to the commission and found favour in their orders.
The statement pointed out that Tamil Nadu ordered lockdown restrictions in view of the second COVID surge from April 20, 16 days after the campaign period was already over in Tamil Nadu.