Delhi HC overrules LG’s objection to govt’s Covid deaths panel
- The court said that the committee will pass a reasoned order without importing the liability on the hospital, and specified that the HPC will be permitted to go ahead if the Delhi government clarifies that any compensation will be paid and absorbed by it alone.
The Delhi high court on Tuesday overruled the objections of the Lieutenant Governor (LG) against the constitution of a high powered committee (HPC) by the Delhi government to ascertain causes of death, including those due to alleged shortage of oxygen, during the brutal national second wave of Covid-19 in April-May this year.
A bench of justices Vipin Sanghi and Jasmeet Singh said that it does not see any difficulty in the constitution of the committee, which, besides finding the reasons for the death, will recommend the compensation amount for the families of those deceased.
The court said that the committee will pass a reasoned order without importing the liability on the hospital, and specified that the HPC will be permitted to go ahead if the Delhi government clarifies that any compensation will be paid and absorbed by it alone.
“The issue here is a legal issue. Can you determine a fault-based liability by a committee (and) fix liability on a third party, which not only puts financial liability but tarnishes professional reputation?” the court said. “...you say you will fix liability, you are entering into the domain of judiciary and medical council. You can’t do it.”
The bench said that HPC will not overlap with the areas already being looked into by the subcommittees constituted by the apex court, adding that the Supreme Court-appointed committee was seized of issues at the “macro level” while the HPC proposed to look at “micro situations”.
“[The] Supreme Court [order] is on logistics and not specifics... We take it that there should be over overlap,” the court stated.
The ruling came on a plea by Riti Singh Verma, who sought that all Covid-19 deaths be probed by the expert committee after her 34-year-old husband died of Covid-19 at the Jaipur Golden Hospital in Rohini, on May 14 during the second wave.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Delhi government said, “We respect the court’s direction and are grateful for the same. The Delhi government has been serious about the deaths in the capital due to lack of oxygen during the corona pandemic. The Delhi government wants the truth to come out...Finally, today the court has upheld the stance of the Delhi government.”
On May 27, the Delhi government constituted a committee to probe the causes of death during the second wave and grant ex-gratia payments to the victims.
However, the LG had put it in abeyance on June 8, saying that the matter was pending before the Supreme Court and that the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was yet to come out with uniform compensation guidelines.
Between June and August, the Delhi government and the LG’s office have gone back and forth over the matter. The AAP government in June proposed a new committee to look into cause of death, a request that was turned down by the LG, who holds a veto over most administrative matters. The government reiterated at the request, which too was rejected. In both cases, the LG’s office cited the Supreme Court-appointed panel’s probe, according to people who asked not to be named.
At its peak, Delhi recorded around 28,300 cases in a day and a positivity rate exceeding 36% on April 20 and 22 respectively. Around that time, at least 31 people are believed to have died because of oxygen shortage in two separate incidents in two separate hospitals – Jaipur Golden and Batra hospitals. The Union government told parliament in July that no state has reported deaths due to oxygen shortage during the April-May wave of infections, a position that was the trigger for Delhi government to reiterate its request for a probe panel in August.
On Tuesday, the court noted the submission of the Delhi government that the criteria for determining compensation will be open to scrutiny and that the task of the committee will not overlap with that of a subgroup constituted by the Supreme Court on allocation and utilisation of oxygen.
Appearing for the Delhi government, senior advocate Rahul Mehra told the court that the HPC was only a “fact-finding committee” which would not attribute any fault or negligence to a hospital and “compensation was purely going from the government”.
He told the court that compensation of up to ₹5 lakh would be calculated by the HPC on the basis of an objective criteria decided by it, which would be open to a challenge by any party.
Mehra told the court that the scope of work of the HPC would be different from the committee constituted by the Supreme Court, and it would be different from the ₹50,000 ex gratia being offered by the state government.
Additional Solicitor General Sanjay Jain, for the LG, requested the court to defer passing any order and wait for the guidelines of the NDMA on uniform compensation in accordance with the order of the SC.
However, the court said that there was no reason to wait for the findings of the committee constituted after the orders of the apex court.
Earlier, the Delhi government had told the court that the LG was behaving in an “obstructionist manner” and his decision to put the proposal for the committee in abeyance is “misconceived”.