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Who has the power to delay polls, Cal HC asks state, election comm

Calcutta HC

Ashok Chatterjee

Kolkata (The Hawk): As the Covid-19 transmission graph in the state moves northwards, the Calcutta High Court wanted to know from lawyers of both the state and the State Election Commission who has the powers to postpone municipal elections, scheduled for January 22.

The court was hearing a public interest litigation case on Thursday seeking postponement of the polls by at least a month. In the context, the State Election Commission (SEC) informed the court about the present election situation through an affidavit.

The court has reserved its verdict and said the orders will be uploaded on the website later.

There was ambiguity over who has the authority to order a postponement of the polls – the state or the SEC. There was a lot of tension in court over the issue and the lawyers from both the parties had to also face the heat in court on this.

The case came up for discussion in the division bench of Chief Justice Prakash Srivastava and Justice Anand Kumar Mukherjee on Thursday. In the affidavit, the commission informed that the number of booths in the upcoming four municipalities of Asansol, Chandannagar, Bidhannagar and Siliguri is 2,383. The total number of polling stations is 886. The total number of voters is 19,36, 566. There is a reserve of 30% polling staff to be used for voting and double dose vaccine has been made mandatory for all.

There are approximately 450 to 1200 voters in each polling station. Voters will vote as a 'batch'. Only one voter will be allowed to stand in front of the polling officer. In that case also social distance (Social Distancing) is mandatory. Voters from the containment zones will be allowed to cast their votes an hour before polling ends along with COVID positive patients. At that time the polling staff will be in PPE kits.

Incidentally, Bikash Rranjan Bhattacharya questioned the withdrawal of votes in the court today. “West Bengal stands in the first few states in terms of transmission of the virus. So the election should be postponed,” he said. On the other hand, Jayant Mitra, lawyer of the SEC, said, “The law states that the state government fixes the date of election in consultation with the Election Commission. Therefore, if the vote is delayed, it has to be discussed with the state. The commission cannot postpone the vote on its own.”

The court then asked again, “Is the power of the state greater then?” In response, state’s lawyer, Samrat Sen said, “The commission will fix the date. The state can make recommendations.”

The court observed: “You say the state will make recommendations, but the commission says the state will fix the day. It is surprising that even 28 years after the enactment of this law, the state and the commission are making contradictory statements in the court.”

The commission further told the court that the decision to withdraw the vote would have to be taken in consultation with the state disaster management authorities. They are looking into the matter. It can’t be stopped by the commission.”

Expressing dissatisfaction, the Chief Justice again again said, “Can the commission, the state, or both of them be able to postpone the vote? Where is your problem? Clear your position first.”