All who inhabit our planet cannot escape natural disasters. They spell havoc without notice, without warning. We have seen towns and cities flattened, lives lost and habitations washed away. Such is the power of nature.
All we can do is to help those who survive nature’s fury—those who have lost their livelihoods, are orphaned and feel that there is nothing left to live for having lost those dear to them.
It is at such times that the state steps in to help stitch lives, to make a citizen feel that he is cared for. Understandably, the Ministry of Home Affairs, on 8 April 2015, delineated the norms of assistance available both under the National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF) and the State Disaster Relief Fund (SDRF) in the event of a disaster. These norms were applicable over the period of 2015 to 2020 during which the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc and shook us all. The gratuitous relief available under the said norms allowed for ex-gratia payment of Rs 4 lakh to the family of a deceased person, including those involved in relief operations and preparedness activities, subject to verification regarding cause of death. It is logical to assume that such a dispensation is available to all those dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic—doctors, frontline workers and those who by virtue of their vocation were required to put themselves at risk of getting infected while trying to save those infected with the virus. There are others who performed civic functions necessary to keep essential services functional. Having sacrificed their lives to save the lives of others, we owe these brave citizens more than just a debt of gratitude.
It is, however, a matter of great concern that the Government of India has refused to apply the norms under the 2015 order to our frontline ‘soldiers’ who lost their lives while attempting to save us from the Covid-19 pandemic. On 14 March 2020 the government declared the pandemic as a notified disaster. Within hours, the order was modified. The list of items and norms of assistance appended to the new order did not specify payment of any ex-gratia amount to the families of the deceased. This borders on inhuman conduct. The government’s position is that a disaster contemplated by these norms is a one-time event; that Covid-19 is not one such disaster as it is an evolving global pandemic. It is a phenomenon that differs in its intensity and mutates through waves, making it a global public health challenge. In fact, according to the government, successive Finance Commissions have recommended allocations for providing financial relief against 12 identified disasters—cyclone, drought, earthquake, fire, floods, tsunami, hailstorm, landslide, avalanches, flash floods, frost and cold waves—to which the norms would apply.
The government has decided that the norms applicable to identified disasters are not available to victims of Covid-19, the logic being that this pandemic was not known to man before the virus-infected people. However, the nature of new viruses will never be known till they attack the human body. Covid-19 is one such virus. Globally, millions have been victims of this virus. In India alone, if we accept official data, almost 4,00,000 people have fallen prey to this virus. The numbers are without doubt much higher. To put it simply, according to the government, an unidentified disaster is not akin to an identified disaster that requires the surviving families of its victims to be compensated. Such an interpretation defies reason.
The government, by its own logic, cannot deny that Covid-19 is a disaster. It boasts of a National Plan under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, providing relief to those affected. It claims to have adopted a multipronged tailor-made response taking into account the evolving nature of the virus. At the same time it absolves itself of the obligation to provide the minimum standards of relief required under Section 12 of the 2005 Act. Given this position of the government, it has taken a conscious decision to provide relief depending upon the ever-changing requirements that are needed to ameliorate the effects of this pandemic. Because of the nature of challenges that lie ahead and the enormous burden on the economy along with pressures on the Centre’s exchequer, the government is providing support to the public under its various schemes. The Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package, the Comprehensive Personal Accident Cover of Rs 50 lakh provided to 22.12 lakh healthcare workers, including community as well as private healthcare workers who may have been exposed to Covid-19 patients, are a few of such schemes that cover the staff of even private hospitals, volunteers, daily wagers, and others.
The defence of the government in not applying the policy decision of 8 April 2015, as also modifying the list of items and norms of assistance, is on the assumption that it has already done enough to take care of the needs of those who have been directly or indirectly impacted by the pandemic.
The state is obligated to protect its citizens when such a disaster destroys lives and livelihoods. Any relief granted is not in the nature of an act of mercy or generosity. It is the state’s constitutional duty. To deprive families of compensation granted to others because of the nature of the disaster is crass discrimination. Whether the disaster is a one-time event or a continuing tragedy, the duty to compensate the families of those who have lost their loved ones is no different and cannot depend on whether the disaster is notified by the government or not. A notification cannot alter the nature of the compensation. Government discretion cannot alter the status of the tragedy.
The corporate sector, to boost the business environment, gets massive economic packages and tax benefits. Banks take thousands of crores in haircuts in insolvency proceedings. For that, public monies can be sacrificed. But not for lives lost in a disaster. That is a burden on the exchequer!
Senior lawyer, Congress leader and member of Rajya Sabha