The Supreme Court on Monday reserved its verdict in the plea seeking ex-gratia compensation of Rs 4 lakh each to the families of people who have died due to Covid-19 after hearing arguments.
The Division Bench of Justice Ashok Bhushan and Justice M.R. Shah have asked both parties to file their written submissions within 3 days. Senior Advocate S.B. Upadhyay, appearing on behalf of the petitioner, submitted before the Court that he appreciates the efforts of the government regarding providing assistance to the front liners in the fight against Covid-19 but in the present case, we are dealing with some bigger issues. According to Section 12 of the National Disaster Management Act, 2005 the National Authority shall recommend guidelines for the minimum standards of relief to the persons affected by disaster, which shall include,—
(i) the minimum requirements to be provided in the relief camps in relation to shelter, food, drinking water, medical cover and sanitation;
(ii) the special provisions to be made for widows and orphans;
(iii) ex gratia assistance on account of loss of life as also assistance on account of damage to houses and for restoration of means of livelihood;
(iv) such other relief as may be necessary.
The Court asked Upadhyay that if the notification issued by the Government in 2015 by which the ex-gratia payment was provided is applicable for the pandemic or not or they ought to have issued some fresh measures to provide them assistance.
Upadhyay replied that insurance cover has been given to doctors but what about others, who are also frontline warriors, such as paramedics, police, etc. and they are covered under the insurance cover by which doctors are covered. Therefore, some scheme is required to be framed keeping in mind that the Government has this constitutional obligation.
He further submitted that Covid-19 is a notified disaster on which Section 12 of the Act applies that includes ex-gratia assistance on account of damage. Though the respondent has said that this is not a kind of disaster which had been envisaged for which NDMA has been formulated, because those are almost one-time events and Corona is recurring, first in 2020 and then 2021. But this contention is not correct as the government has itself declared it a disaster/pandemic and floods and earthquakes are also reoccurring events.
Regarding notification issued by the Government in 2015, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta has submitted that that was for the one time and issued only for 4 years. The Court observed that “the 2015 notification is not applicable and you cannot insist that Rs 4 lakh shall be given.” Every disaster has a different impact and the assistance be provided in the ratio of the gravity of the pandemic.
Upadhyay prayed for a direction for extension of the notification issued by the Government in 2015 and requested that if Government cannot extend the operation of notification then they have to frame some scheme for ex-gratia payment. The Section 12 of the Act has the term ‘shall’ not ‘may’ which mandates the duty of the Government.
Petitioner in person Gaurav Kumar Bansal has also submitted his contention that an insurance programme in National Insurance Scheme for disaster-related death in India could be a feasible intervention for several reasons. On the strength of state-wise disaster mortality data, a National Insurance Scheme could be set up in partnership with an insurance company. State governments may join the scheme. The Union Government could also contribute to the risk. And such insurance premium would generally be less than what state government pay by way of ex-gratia assistance. In case of death, the insurance company would release the pay-out to the affected family at different stages. The respondents are only focusing on the medical staff but there are also some people doing their duty like disposing the body at crematorium etc.
Sumeer Sodhi, on behalf of the families of the deceased, filed an intervention application and raised a question that whether unequal disaster can be treated equally? As what is happening today is that they are discriminated as in Delhi the people died due to Covid are being paid an amount of Rs 50,000 and in Bihar, it is Rs 4 lakh. So, how can Centre allow this type of discrimination?
The Central government has told the Supreme Court that it cannot afford to pay ex-gratia compensation of Rs 4 lakh each to the families of people who have died due to Covid-19. The government has also said the disaster management law mandating compensation applies only to natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods etc, it said.
“If the entire SDRF funds get consumed on ex-gratia for Covid-19 victims, the states may not have sufficient funds for organizing Covid-19 response, for provision of various essential medical and other supplies, or to take care of other disasters like cyclones, floods, etc. Hence, the prayer of the petitioner for payment of ex-gratia to all deceased persons due to Covid-19 is beyond the fiscal affordability of the State governments,” Government said.
“All deaths with a diagnosis of Covid-19, irrespective of co-morbidities, are to be classified as deaths due to Covid -19. The only exception could be where there is a clear alternative cause of death, that cannot be attributed to Covid -19 (e.g. accidental trauma, poisoning, acute myocardial infarction, etc), where Covid-19 is an incidental finding,” the Centre said.
The Court has asked Mehta to look into the matter of the death certificate issued by the doctors where the cause of death is either not mentioned or just shows the reason something else. There must be some method to make corrections to those certificates so they shall not be left out of getting the financial assistance they ought to have got if the certificates were correct.