There is a right and just case for paying ex gratia compensation to the families of those who died of Covid-19 in the country. The case is buttressed by law also because the Disaster Management Act (DMA), 2005, provides for such compensation. Covid-19 was notified as a disaster under the DMA in March 2020. The ex gratia in such cases is Rs 4 lakh, as per a 2015 notification. A PIL filed in the Supreme Court has demanded payment of Rs 4 lakh to the kin of every victim, as in the case of cyclones, floods, earthquakes, etc. The central government has opposed the demand on various grounds, including the assertion that it cannot afford to make payment of such a large compensation. According to official figures, about four lakh deaths have taken place due to Covid-19 till now. The figures may change, and more fatalities are likely to occur in the coming weeks and months. But it is not right to claim that there are no resources when the government is spending huge money on projects like the Central Vista redevelopment.
The argument that cyclones or earthquakes are one-time events, but the pandemic is a continuing event also does not bear scrutiny. It is a one-time event for the victim and the family. The fact that it is a global disaster does not lessen its severity for the victims and their kin. Most people have spent large financial resources for treatment and many families have been pauperised. It is the responsibility of the State to provide adequate health facilities and ensure treatment for these who need it. It is known that many people did not get adequate treatment. The government has the moral responsibility to pay compensation to the kin of the victims in such a situation, and it should not advance excuses for not doing so.
The government has also said that limiting relief to monetary payoffs was a “narrow and pedantic approach” and there was no precedent of giving ex gratia compensation for a disease or disaster spread out over a period. It has said that granting compensation in the case of one disease while denying it in the case of other diseases would be wrong and discriminatory. Instead of one-time compensation it wants to deploy funds in healthcare, enhance social protection and support economic recovery of affected communities. While decisions and actions with long-term impact are good and necessary, people need support and sustenance in the short term. One is no substitute for the other. The petitioner's submission that some help needs to be given to families who lost their breadwinners or families of frontline warriors who lost their lives is just and legitimate.