The Kerala high court on Wednesday ordered the ailing national carrier Air India (AI) to pay Rs 75 lakh each to families of the Mangalore air crash victims. One of the worst aviation disasters of the country 158 passengers killed in May 2010 mishap.
Relatives were locked in a fierce legal battle with the AI for more than a year claiming adequate compensation. Initially the AI and insurance consortium tried to settle the case offering compensation based on the income of the deceased. Since majority of the victims belong to low-income group relief offered to them was ranging between Rs 15 to 35 lakh.
However a native of Kasargod (north Kerala) Abdul Salam, who lost his son Mohamed Rafi (24) in the crash, moved the high court seeking better compensation. Initially he was offered a relief of Rs 35 lakh but he refused to accept it.
Delivering the verdict justice PR Ramachandran Menon observed that since India was a signatory to the Montreal Convention compensation should be in tune with the accepted norm. "It is clear that the intention of the lawmakers was to ensure parity in compensation irrespective of the class of travel or background," the court said.
The relief offered was very low, the court said adding the carrier was liable to pay one lakh SDR (special drawing rights) which is equivalent to Rs 75 lakh. This is perhaps the highest ever compensation given to air passengers in the country. This is besides other compensations petitioners are entitled to. (SDR is a foreign exchange reserve maintained by the International Monetary Fund. Not a currency, SDRs represent a claim to currency held by member countries. In international arbitrations usually claims are settled through SDRs).
However the AI interpreted the international norms differently saying the one lakh SDR was not a minimum compensation. However the court rejected its contention and asked it pay the relief in one-year time. Upset with the 'indifferent' attitude of the AI, families of the deceased had floated an organization, Mangalore air crash victims' Families Association, to fight their case.
How the cash-strapped airliner will cough up this huge amount remains to be seen. Now AI's total debt stands at Rs 46,950 crore (Rs 20,185 crore aircraft loan, Rs 22,165 crore working capital and Rs 4489 dues the airline owes operators, oil companies and others). The government has pumped in Rs 532 crore to AI two days back to get some breathing space to ailing Maharaja.
In May 22, 2010 crash Air India Express (budget airline of AI) Boeing 737-800 aircraft from Dubai carrying 166 people crashed outside Bajpe Airport in Mangalore (Karnataka) and burst into flames after overshooting a table-top runway. Eight passengers survived in the third deadliest air mishap in the country (Others are 1996 Charki Dadri mid-air collision which killed 349 and 1978 AI crash near Mumbai which claimed 213 lives).