The Supreme Court on Saturday refused to stay the counting of votes for panchayat polls in Uttar Pradesh and said no victory rallies will be permitted during the counting or after the process is over.
At a special urgent hearing, which took place on a court holiday ahead of the counting beginning on Sunday, a bench comprising Justices A M Khanwilkar and Hrishikesh Roy also asked the State Election Commission to fasten responsibility on gazetted officers for observing COVID-19 protocols at counting centres across the state.
The top court's directions came on a plea seeking directions for the observance of COVID-19 protocols during the counting of votes in view of the second wave of the pandemic sweeping through the country.
The bench said government officials, candidates and their agents will have to produce RT-PCR tests to show they are COVID-19 negative before entering the counting centres.
The top court also directed the state government to ensure there will be strict curfew in and around the counting centres till the process goes on and that no victory rallies are carried out after the announcement of results.
The court passed the order after taking note of several notifications and assurances from the UP SEC that COVID-19 protocols would be followed at the 829 counting centres.
It said the poll panel should preserve CCTV footage of counting centres in the state till the Allahabad High Court concludes its hearing on related petitions before it.
During the hearing, advocate Shoeb Alam, appearing for the petitioner Sachin Yadav, said there are lakhs of candidates in the fray. The congregation of a huge number of poll officials and counting agents at the counting centres should be avoided in view of the surge of Covid infections, he said.
Yadav had challenged an Allahabad high court order allowing panchayat elections to continue in the state.
His lawyer Alam said there should be adequate safeguards as the counting process will go on for a couple of days. Over 60 crore ballot papers were printed and have to be counted, he pointed out.
He also referred to a note from the UP primary teachers association saying more than 700 people had lost their lives during the polls.
Appearing for the UP SEC, Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati said directions have been issued from time to time and senior officials have been given the responsibility for maintaining Covid appropriate behaviour.
She gave an assurance that there would be strict compliance of Covid appropriate behaviour at the counting centres and the counting would be done in shifts so there are no congregations at any particular time.
She said they had to make a choice between the "devil and the deep sea", and added that panchayat bodies have also been effective in containing the surge of COVID-19 during the first wave last year.
On Friday, the top court had sought a response from the Uttar Pradesh government and the SEC on Yadav's plea.
Uttar Pradesh has been reporting a massive surge in fresh COVID-19 cases. Polling for the four-phased panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh ended on April 29.
The first phase on April 15 and the second round on April 19 recorded a turnout of 71 per cent. In the third phase on April 26, 73.5 percent of registered voters turned out to exercise their franchise, officials said.