Lucknow | Jagran News Desk: The Election Commission of India (ECI) on Thursday said that the polling time for the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh will be extended by an hour in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Addressing a press conference, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sushil Chandra said that only fully vaccinated staff will be deployed at voting booths across the state to check the spread of COVID-19.

When asked about a ban on big political rallies, the top poll body official said that the situation has been discussed with the health secretary of Uttar Pradesh, adding that specific guidelines will be announced later once the polling schedule is announced.

"Representatives of all political parties met us and told us that elections should be conducted on time following all COVID-19 protocols," Chandra was quoted as saying by news agency ANI. "Voting during Assembly elections will be held from 8 am to 6 pm on the date of polling."

During the media briefing, Chandra said that the number of voters per booth has been reduced from 1,500 to 1,200. He also said that the number of polling stations has been increased by 11,000 in Uttar Pradesh.

Chandra further said that all poll-bound states - Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur - have been asked to pace up the COVID-19 vaccination drive. The CEC, however, said that COVID-19 patients can vote from home.

"61 per cent voter turnout was recorded in 2017 UP assembly elections. In 2019 Lok Sabha elections, voter turnout in UP was 59 per cent. It a matter of worry why voting percentage is less in the state where there is high political awareness among people," Chandra noted.

Expressing concerns over distribution of freebies, the CEC said that the poll body is keeping a close eye on the matter. He said that officials have also met district magistrates (DMs) and Superintendents of Police (SPs) of all districts in Uttar Pradesh, directing them to ensure that polls are conducted in a "free and fair" manner.

"VVPATs to be installed at all voting booths. Live webcasting facilities will be available at around 1 lakh voting booths to ensure transparency in election process," ANI quoted Chandra as saying.

The EC had on Tuesday met all the major political parties - Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Samajwadi Party (SP), Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) - in Uttar Pradesh amid concerns over Omicron variant of COVID-19.

On Wednesday, it also held a review meeting on Wednesday with the state's senior officials in Lucknow to assess the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly poll preparedness.

This came after the Allahabad High Court urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the EC to look for ways to "postpone" the Uttar Pradesh elections by a couple of months and ban all political rallies in wake of the rising COVID-19 cases in India.

Assembly elections are slated to take place in Uttar Pradesh next year. In the previous elections, the BJP bagged 312 seats while the SP got 47 seats. The BSP, on the other hand, won just 19 seats while the Congress got seven seats.

Posted By: Aalok Sensharma