By LE Desk

New Delhi, June 21, 2021: The Supreme Court today reserved its verdict on the pleas seeking directions that ex-gratia compensation of Rs 4 lakh be paid to the families of those who have died of Covid-19.

A special vacation bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan and M R Shah heard Solicitor General Tushar Mehta and senior advocate S B Upadhyay and other lawyers for almost two hours, news agency PTI reported.

“Is there any decision taken that there is no need to pay ex gratia? Is there a decision or is it a case of ‘no decision?” the bench asked Mehta, reported The Hindu.

“Where is the decision that there is no need for ex gratia?”, Justice M.R. Shah, the other judge on the Bench, also enquired. He even asked whether the government, by maintaining that COVID-19 was not a “one-time disaster”, was inferring that the Disaster Management Act would not apply to the pandemic.

The questions from the Bench came even as the Union government clarified that it had money, but the focus was on utilising funds for food, medical care, oxygen, vaccination and pumping up the economy rather than pay a one-time compensation of ₹4 lakh each to families of people who died of COVID-19.

“It is not that we do not have money… It is that our focus is rather on expenditure of money for other things [like public health interventions, social protection and economic recovery for the affected communities, etc],” Mehta submitted, The Hindu reported.

The top court asked the parties to file written submissions in three days and specifically directed the Centre to simplify the process of grant of death certificates to the dependents of those who have died of Covid-19.

The Centre had earlier told the apex court that the ex-gratia compensation of Rs 4 lakh cannot be paid to the families of those who have died of Covid-19 as the finances of state governments and the Centre are under severe strain due to economic setbacks during the lockdowns.

In an affidavit filed before the top court, the Ministry of Home Affairs said the Centre submitted that it has by ways of ‘Minimum Standard Relief’ under section 12 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, taken several steps providing for substantial and speedy measures by way of, increase in the health, infrastructure, ensuring food safety to every citizen.

Senior advocate S.B. Upadhyay, for the petitioners, said, “But if they do have the money, why should they not comply with their statutory obligation under Section 12 of the Disaster Management Act to provide ex gratia assistance to Covid-19 victims?”. The government had itself declared Covid-19 a national disaster, he submitted.

The petitioners have highlighted a 2015 notification, which requires the government to pay an ex gratia of ₹ 4 lakh each to victims’ families under Section 12. The Centre cannot cite financial constraints to elude its statutory duty to pay compensation now, Upadhyay contended, reported The Hindu.

Advocate Gaurav Kumar Bansal, one of the petitioners in the matter, had argued that under section 12(iii) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, every family whose member died due to disaster is entitled for ex-gratia compensation of Rs 4 lakh

since Covid-19 has been declared as a disaster and as per the order dated April 8, 2015, PTI reported.

The counsel, appearing for another petitioner Reepak Kansal, had argued that a large number of deaths were taking place due to Covid-19 and death certificates need to be issued, as only after that the affected family members can claim compensation under section 12 (iii) of the Act.

In his plea, Kansal has said that states should be directed to fulfil their obligation to take care of victims of Covid-19 and also their family members.

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