New Delhi, June 30: The Supreme Court on Wednesday directed the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to issue fresh guidelines for providing minimum standards of financial help to families of those who lost their lives to COVID-19.
A special bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and M.R. Shah said the court cannot direct the Centre to fix a particular amount of financial help but the government can fix the minimum standard of amount to be paid as ex-gratia to family members of those who lost their lives due to COVID-19 while keeping various aspects in mind.
The bench said the government can fix a reasonable amount while keeping in the mind the funds and resources available with the country.
The top court directed the Centre and the NDMA to issue fresh guidelines within six weeks for minimum standard of relief to be granted to families of victims of COVID-19.
It also directed the authorities to issue guidelines for simplifying the process of issuing death certificates for COVID-19 fatalities.
The top court asked the Centre to consider formulating an insurance scheme for cremation workers as proposed by the Finance Commission.
The bench also rejected the argument of the Centre for reading “shall” as “may” in section 12 of the Disaster Management Act for grant of ex-gratia amount to victims of disaster, and said that the NDMA has failed to perform its statutory duties.
The top court's verdict came on two separate pleas filed by lawyers Reepak Kansal and Gaurav Kumar Bansal seeking directions to the Centre and the states to provide Rs four lakh as compensation to the families of coronavirus victims as provisioned under the Act.
On June 21, the top court had reserved its verdict on the batch of pleas which also sought formulation of a uniform policy for issuing of death certificates.
The Centre has told the top court that though there was no issue of "fiscal affordability" with it, but ex-gratia compensation of Rs four lakh to the families of those who have died of COVID cannot be paid keeping in mind the "rational, judicious and optimum usage of resources of the nation".
In its additional affidavit, the government has termed COVID as "once in a lifetime pandemic inflicted on the entire world" and said that various steps to strategise the nation's response to the pandemic have been taken and not just the funds of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF), but even the funds of Consolidated Fund of India are being utilised according to the advice of experts.
Advocate Sumeer Sodhi, appearing for four intervening applicants who had lost their family members to COVID-19, had submitted that there cannot be any discrimination in the amounts being paid by different states to family members of those who had succumbed to the deadly infection.
Sodhi had submitted that some states pay a higher sum in compensation and others pay less and this discrimination should not be allowed to remain and the Centre should frame a uniform policy under the Disaster Management Act.
The top court had that the Finance Commission's recommendations on dealing with disasters cannot override the statutory schemes on compensation under section 12 of the DMA.
The government has said that it has already extended for one more year, starting from April 2021, the benefit of the 'Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Insurance Scheme' of Rs 50 lakh to about 22 lakh healthcare professionals.
It had said the guidelines, meant for 2015 to 2020, recommended expenditure for providing financial relief against 12 specific identified disasters on the national level that is "cyclone, drought, earthquake, fire, flood, tsunami, hailstorm, landslide, avalanche, cloudburst, pest-attack, frost and cold wave" and that COVID-19 was not included.
"It is submitted that information has been received from all the States and UTs in this respect. However, as per information received, it is clarified that no State/UT has provided any ex-gratia to COVID-19 victims from SDRF," the Centre had said.
It further said that in accordance with the recommendations of 15th Finance Commission and the experts, the Centre has devised the strategy to deal with, the extremely contagious, volatile and ever changing impact of the mutations of the virus COVID-19, in the best possible manner utilising all the financial, human and infrastructural resources of the nation, rationally and judiciously.
The affidavit has further said that the central government has already declared COVID-19 as a "disaster" under the Disaster Management Act.
"However, on the issue of 'ex-gratia' assistance on account of loss of life, the guidelines provide that the norms provided by government of India (Ministry of Home Affairs) for assistance from SDRF should be the Minimum Standards of Relief," it had said.