The Supreme Court on Wednesday said the Prime Minister-headed National Disaster Management Authority failed in its statutory duty to pay ex-gratia to families of those who died of Covid-19.
A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan ane M R Shah held that the National Disaster Management Authority is statutorily mandated to provide minimum standards of relief, which must include ex-gratia assistance to Covid-19 victims, as the pandemic was notified as a disaster on March 14, 2020. "By not recommending any ex-gratia assistance, the NDMA has failed to perform its statutory duty cast under Section 12 of the Disaster Management Act," Justice Shah wrote in a 66-page judgement on behalf of the bench.
The top court gave six weeks' time to the Centre to prepare guidelines to pay the ex-gratia to Covid-19 victims and issuance of death certificates.
The Union government said no such ex-gratia can be paid in view of the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and efforts being made to provide relief to the people by augmenting health infrastructure and other packages.
Referring to Section 12 of the Act, which dealt with relief to disaster victims, the court said the word used over there is "shall" and is a mandatory one.
The Centre contended the word "shall" should be construed as "may" since the legislature might not have visualised such a pandemic. The court, however, said such an interpretation would defeat the purpose of the provision.
With regard to a plea by PIL petitioners Gaurav Kumar Bansal and Reepak Kansal for payment of Rs 4 lakh, the bench said it is not proper to direct payment of a particular amount to be paid to victims of other disasters due to the peculiar nature of the Covid-19 pandemic and its ongoing impact.
"No state or country has unlimited resource," the court said, adding ex-gratia assistance would also have financial implications and the government would be free to take decisions in its own "wisdom".
The court also said "simplified" guidelines should also be prepared with regards to the issuance of death certificates, which must specifically mention if the person has died of Covid-19 or complications due to it, with a provision for getting the document corrected. It also suggested the Union government to consider extending insurance cover of Rs 50 lakh announced under the PM Garib Kalyan Package to those working at premortem and came into direct contact with dead bodies of Covid-19 patients.
Various state governments like Bihar paid ex-gratia of Rs 4 lakh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh Rs 1 lakh and Delhi Rs 50,000 to kin of Covid-19 victims from the Chief Minister's Relief Fund or any other fund.