Udayavni Special

SC asks Centre if PM-headed NDMA decided on ex-gratia compensation to families of COVID victims


PTI, Jun 21, 2021, 2:58 PM IST

New Delhi: The Supreme Court Monday asked the Centre whether NDMA, headed by the Prime Minister, has taken a decision not to pay Rs 4 lakh ex-gratia to families of victims of COVID, and observed that “to avoid heart burn” among beneficiaries, framing of a uniform compensation scheme may be considered.

The Centre, which in its affidavit said that paying ex-gratia compensation was beyond the fiscal affordability and the finances of central and state governments as they were under severe strain, told the top court however that it was not the case of the government that “it does not have money”.

“Our case is that we are utilising the funds available for other things rather than utilising funds to build health infrastructure, ensure food to all, vaccinate the entire population and provide financial stimulus to boost the economy.

“You (Centre) are right in clarifying because saying that the Central Government has no money has very wide repercussions,” a special vacation bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and M R Shah told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta while reserving verdict on two pleas seeking ex-gratia compensation for dependents of those who died of COVID-19.

Observing that the Finance Commission’s recommendations on dealing with disasters cannot override statutory schemes on compensation under section 12 of the Disaster Management Act, the bench asked the Centre “whether the National Disaster Management Authority, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has taken any decision that no compensation should be given as ex-gratia”.

Mehta referred to some decision taken by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the nodal agency for disaster management, saying that he was not aware of any such decision of the NDMA.

The top court termed as “prima facie more complicated” the present process of issuing death certificates and asked the Centre to “simplify” it to enable the dependents of COVID victims to get such certificates corrected even after their issuance so that they can avail benefits of the welfare schemes.

“Can it be said that a COVID positive patient who was hospitalised, will be issued such a death certificate..,” the bench asked.

“When humanity is gone and things like black marketing is happening, what can be said? But our priority is the common man,” the bench said, asking the Solicitor General to do the needful to ensure that families of those who died of COVID get the proper death certificate and the provision for amending the reason for death should be there.

On being pointed out that states do not give uniform compensation to families of the victims, it asked whether uniform guidelines on compensation can be framed under the Act ”otherwise there will be heartburn. Somebody will get some money and others will get more”.

The Centre can consider having a uniform scheme under other provisions of the DMA, Mehta said.

The bench, which asked the parties to file written submissions within three days, took note of the fact that the Finance Commission has laid down the schemes for five years on tackling the disasters, but said that the recommendations cannot override a statutory obligation.

“Finance Commission states the way how mitigation needs to be done and thus amounts are earmarked. If the plea succeeds, then allocation has to change… The Finance Commission’s focus is more on preparedness, mitigation and response..,” the Solicitor General said.

He said the issue of granting insurance cover to those working in crematoriums was a “valid concern” as presently they are not covered and the Centre will take care of this aspect.

“Presently over 22 lakh health care workers are covered under the insurance scheme,” Mehta said.

At the outset, senior advocate S B Upadhyay, appearing for a petitioner, referred to the statutory scheme under the DMA and said the government cannot take the plea that it will not have the compensation scheme due to financial constraints.

“The government is saying that this is not the kind of disaster that the Act foresaw because other disasters are a one-time event and this COVID is recurring…flood, tsunami, cyclones are also recurring phenomena,” he said.

Under the law, the Centre must have a compensation scheme and the amount of Rs 4 lakh was not so important, Upadhyay said.

The bench said: “Every disaster is different. There can be small and big pandemics. Or a big flood or small food. If the standard or gravity of a pandemic is more, then you cannot say that the same standard can be applied for every disaster.” On June 11, the Centre had told the top court that issues raised in the pleas, seeking directions for ex-gratia compensation of Rs 400,000 to the families of those who have died of COVID-19, are “genuine” and are under consideration of the government.

The apex court is hearing two separate pleas filed by lawyers Reepak Kansal and Gaurav Kumar Bansal respectively seeking directions to the Centre and the states to provide Rs 4 lakh compensation to the families of coronavirus victims as provisioned under the Act, and a uniform policy for issuing death certificates.

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