The Supreme Court on Wednesday directed National Disaster Management Authority to issue guidelines in six weeks for ex gratia compensation to families of those who died of COVID, saying the NDMA has “failed to perform” its “mandatory statutory duty”.
IMAGE: Family members mourn a COVID-19 victim at the Patna Medical College and Hospital. Photograph: PTI Photo
The top court also ordered steps to simplify guidelines for issuance and correction of “death certificates/official documents stating the exact cause of death, that is, ”Death due to Covid-19”” for enabling dependents to get benefits of welfare schemes.
A bench of justices Ashok Bhushan and M R Shah however noted the “peculiarity and the impact and effect” of the pandemic and said that it cannot order payment of Rs 4 lakh as ex gratia compensation which should be decided by NDMA as there was a need to “focus simultaneously on prevention, preparedness, mitigation and recovery, which calls for a different order of mobilization of both financial and technical resources”.
“The courts would be very slow to interfere with priorities fixed by the government in providing reliefs, unless it is patently arbitrary and/or not in the larger public interest at all. The Government should be free to take policy decisions/decide priorities..,” the bench said while refusing to fix the compensation amount.
“We direct the NDMA to recommend guidelines for ex gratia assistance on account of loss of life to the family members of the persons who died due to Covid-19, as mandated under Section 12(iii) of Disaster Management Act 2005 for the minimum standards of relief to be provided to the persons affected by disaster – Covid 19 Pandemic, over and above the guidelines already recommended for the minimum standards of relief to be provided..,” it said.
Dealing with the provisions on compensation in the DMA, it said the word “shall” has to be read as “shall” and “it is the mandatory statutory duty cast upon the National Authority to recommend guidelines for the minimum standards of relief which shall include ex gratia assistance on account of loss of life…”
By not recommending any guidelines for ex gratia assistance on account of loss of life due to COVID-19 pandemic, “it can be said that the National Authority has failed to perform its statutory duty cast under Section 12”, it said.
Justice Shah, writing the 66-page judgement for the bench, directed the Centre to take appropriate steps on recommendations of the Finance Commission on providing insurance cover for deaths caused by COVID.
The direction came after the Centre said that presently there was no “guideline/policy/scheme in NDMA which relates to National Insurance mechanism that may be used to pay for disaster related deaths due to COVID”.
The bench noted the willingness of the government to extend the benefit of insurance cover to those involved in conducting last rites of COVID victims.
The judgement said it was the duty of every authority to issue accurate death certificates stating the accurate cause of death, so that the family members of the deceased who died due to COVID may not face any difficulty in getting the benefits of schemes that may be declared by the government.
Referring to guidelines of ICMR, it said, “We feel that the procedure should be as simplified as it can be. Therefore, a simplified procedure/guidelines is/are required to be issued by the Central Government and/or appropriate authority for issuance of an official document/death 61 certificate stating the exact cause of death, i.e., “Death due to Covid-19”, to the family members of the deceased who died due to Covid-19.”
Giving an illustration, it said such guidelines may provide if a person dies within two or three months after being found COVID positive then the death certificate must be issued to the family members of the deceased stating the COVID as cause of death.
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 4 lakh compensation to the families of coronavirus victims as provisioned under the Act.
Advocate Sumeer Sodhi had appeared for four intervening applicants who had lost their family members to COVID and 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.
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.