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Above: College students preparing packets comprising essential items to be distributed to flood victims in Thiruvananthapuram/Photo: UNI

Amidst charges of misuse of flood disaster funds, the Kerala High Court’s suggestion that the state government devise a two-tier formula comes as a relief for victims

By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

After the floods, the charges. As allegations flew thick and fast that the state government was granting compensation to flood victims without any criteria or formula, the Kerala High Court stepped in with the suggestion that the government evolve a uniform formula for compensating victims. The division bench of Chief Justice Hrishikesh Roy and Justice AK Jayasankaran Nambiar made the suggestion while considering a public interest litigation by PK Firoz, Muslim Youth League state secretary, seeking to set up a special tribunal for assessing and disbursing flood compensation.

The Court suggested that the government devise a two-tier compensation formula—at the first stage grant minimum compensation and at a later stage grant final compensation on basis of actual loss. The minimum compensation should be worked out on the basis of common factors like level of inundation, extent of holdings of persons in that area, extent of improvements made by the person in that area, and so on. It was suggested that the minimum compensation should be granted to all affected, irrespective of income criteria, solely on the basis of claims of victims, without insisting on further scrutiny.

Moreover, for the minimum compensation, certification by any authority regarding extent of inundated area should not be necessary, if details of inundation and its duration are available in the satellite data. “We are of the view that once a uniform formula is devised to determine the minimum amount payable to flood victims, then the further compensation payable to any flood victim can be based on proof of actual loss sustained by him, and can be determined on a case-to-case basis. The aforesaid two-tier system of compensation, we feel, will result in an equitable distribution of compensation at the initial level, as also ensure greater transparency while fixing the additional compensation at the second stage. It would also spare citizens the trouble of running behind various authorities for getting appropriate certifications to support claims for the minimum compensation amount,” Justice Nambiar said in the order.

The Court observed that for the second stage of compensation, the government will have to evolve a policy to compensate various categories of persons like householders, businessmen, farmers and the like on the basis of losses sustained by them. The bench said the government was required to file a statement regarding the methodology of compensation within 10 days. The case has been posted for September 19.

Firoz, who filed the PIL, told India Legal that it was the discriminatory way in which the compensation was distributed in the past that prompted him to move the High Court with a prayer to issue an order to the government to set up a special tribunal for the disbursal of compensation. He pointed out that so far the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund (CMDRF) had received over Rs 1,000 crore and there were instances of people who had incurred no loss at all in the flood claiming compensation with the connivance of the ruling party leaders and revenue authorities. “A special tribunal to assess the loss and to decide on the compensation to be granted could help reduce corruption in the disbursal of compensation,” he said. He suggested that the Kerala Legal Services Authority be roped in to disburse compensation.

Speaking to India Legal, advocate PE Sajal said the prayer seeking uniform criteria for disbursal of compensation was based on bitter experiences in the past. Immediately after the flood, a panchayat secretary in Malappuram district  recommended to pay Rs 5.5 lakh to his relative who had actually incurred no loss in the flood, citing that he needed to construct a wall to save his house.

In another case, a former CPI(M) MLA  in Ernakulam who had not incurred any loss claimed Rs 10,000 assistance. When the issue triggered a controversy, he returned the money. The village officer who disbursed the amount said she could not have conducted a scrutiny as there were nearly 3,000 applicants, Sajal said.

When the writ petition was considered on September 4, the bench asked Advocate General CP Sudhakara Prasad about the government’s plan for the disbursal of the compensation.

The AG told the Court that the government would disburse Rs 10,000 each to all victims in the initial phase. In the second phase, the AG said the government would give priority to the poor. Responding to this, the Court told the AG that it would consider everyone equal before the law and it would be ideal to adopt a uniform formula.

In response to the Court’s direction that not a single penny from the fund meant for disaster relief should be diverted and spent for other purposes, the state government on August 30 opened a separate account to park the amount being funded by various agencies. Finance Minister Thomas Isaac also stated that there would be transparency in handling the distress relief fund. But on September 7, the government withdrew this account and said that only the contributions made to the CMDRF would be eligible for income tax exemption. There are allegations that huge funds had been diverted from the CMDRF in the past.

Sajal points out that when NCP state president Uzhavoor Vijayan died, the government granted an assistance of Rs 25 lakh to his family from the CMDRF. The NCP is a coalition partner of the LDF. During the previous tenure of the LDF government under VS Achuthanandan, six fishermen were killed in police firing during a communal clash near Poonthura on the Thiruvananthapuram coast. The government granted a compensation of Rs 10 lakh from the CMDRF.  It was probably the first time that the government suo motu granted such a huge amount from the CMDRF to those killed in police firing.

Meanwhile, amicus curiae Jacob P Alex, who is advising the High Court in flood-related cases, submitted a report recommending distribution of the flood relief directly to the victims. He wanted the government to provide power, drinking water and cooking gas free of cost to the flood victims.

The report calls for disbursal of compensation under the ward level and panchayat level monitoring committees. The amicus curiae recommended that the government introduce a special scheme to support business houses and traders who had incurred huge losses.

Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said he would move the High Court seeking to order a judicial probe into the alleged failure of the dam management and the government’s failure to avert the disaster. He said that he would ask the Court to order the government to open a separate account for handling disaster relief.

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