Centre rules out ₹4 lakh ex-gratia for deaths due to Covid-19
The Centre has ruled out an ex-gratia compensation of ₹four lakh for each of the nearly 3.85 lakh people who died due to Covid-19 in the country.
In an affidavit filed late on Saturday in the Supreme Court, the Centre said that the finances of both Centre and State are under severe strain due to reduced tax revenues and increased expenditure on health infrastructure on account of the pandemic. Looking at the scale of deaths caused by the pandemic that is still not over, the Centre felt it won’t be wise to spend the scarce financial resources for granting ex-gratia.
“Already the finances of State Governments and the Central Government are under severe strain, due to the reduction in tax revenues and increase in health expenses on account of the pandemic. Thus, utilization of scarce resources for giving ex-gratia, may have unfortunate consequences of affecting the pandemic response and health expenditure in other aspects and hence cause more damage than good,” stated the affidavit filed by Govind Mohan, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs.
The Centre also warned Courts from interfering in policy decisions. It said, “It is well settled through numerous judgments of the Supreme Court that this is a matter which should be performed by the authority (National Disaster Management Authority), to whom it has been entrusted and not one where the Court will substitute its own judgment for the decision to be taken by the Executive. Any attempt to second guess may create unintended and unfortunate Constitutional and administrative ramifications.”
The affidavit came in response to two PILs listed before the Supreme Court on Monday. The PILs filed by two lawyers – Gaurav Kumar Bansal and Reepak Kansal – referred to two notifications of the Central Government, one issued on March 14, 2020 declaring Covid-19 as a notified disaster under the National Disaster Management Act 2005 (DMA) and the other issued on April 8, 2015 quantifying ex-gratia compensation of ₹4 lakh to victims killed in a notified disaster.
As per Section 12(iii) of DMA, this money is to be paid from the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) and the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF). In addition, Bansal’s petition raised the issue of compensation for health care workers who have died while performing Covid-19 duties.
The Centre stated that Public Health is a state subject and the burden would fall on the SDRF to pay the compensation. For all states combined, the total budget allocated to SDRF this year comes to ₹22,184 crore. “If the entire SDRF funds get consumed on ex-gratia for Covid-19 victims, the States may not have sufficient funds for organizing Covid-19 response, for provision of various essential medical and other supplies, or to take care of other disasters like cyclones, floods, etc,” the Centre submitted.
As regards healthcare workers, the Centre informed about its scheme under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package (PMGKP) offering a comprehensive personal accident cover of Rs. 50 lakh to 22.12 lakh for healthcare providers. The government has so far settled 477 claims of healthcare workers under this scheme by releasing ₹442.4 crore to the insurance company.
The claim for compensation was further denied on the ground that there existed no precedent for granting ex-gratia for an ongoing disease or for a disaster event extending into several months or years. “Granting ex-gratia for one disease, while denying the same for those accounting for larger share of mortality, would not be fair or proper,” the reply stated.
The affidavit also explained the context for declaring Covid-19 as a notified disaster in March 2020. While states were provided funds to deal with Covid-19 under the National Health Mission, in order to supplement efforts of the State governments, the Centre decided to declare Covid-19 as a disaster by way of a “special one-time dispensation”. This was done to facilitate use of funds under SDRF towards measures for quarantining, sample collection, screening, and procurement of essential equipment or labs for response to Covid-19, the Centre told the Court.
The response of the Centre will be taken up by a bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and MR Shah on Monday.
The petitions also raised an underlying issue about hospitals and municipal authorities not citing Covid-19 as cause of death in their records. Kansal’s petition specifically pointed out that many of these deaths were shown as failed heart or lung condition even though the root cause was Covid-19. The petition wanted to fix this situation to enable kin of Covid-19 victims to receive compensation.
Addressing this issue, the Centre cited its October 9, 2020 letter issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Affairs (MoHFW) to all states and union territories. Reproducing the text from the letter, the affidavit said, “All deaths with a diagnosis of Covid-19, irrespective of co-morbidities, are to be classified as deaths due to Covid-19.” This rule was not to apply to a death due to accidental trauma, poisoning, acute myocardial infarction where Covid-19 was an incidental finding. These were part of Death Certification guidelines issued by Centre to States/UTs.
The Centre stated that anybody who failed to register Covid-19 deaths (even certifying doctor) will suffer penal consequences under Section 188 of Indian Penal Code which punishes acts in breach of public servant’s order. Such offences are punishable with an imprisonment ranging between one to six months or fine.
What was envisaged under DMA was a catastrophe or calamity such as earthquake, flood which is a one-time incident or few periodic incidents. “Due to its scale and impact, it would not be appropriate to apply the scheme of assistance, eligible for natural disasters, to the epidemic,” the Centre said.
The Government gave statistics of its spending under various central schemes linked with Covid-19 relief to show its continued spending for Covid-19 mitigation. It even shared budget estimate for 2021-22 for mass vaccination to the tune of ₹35,000 crore.