Shri Sanjeeva Kumar
Union Home Secretary
Dear Shri Sanjeeva Kumar,
I had earlier written to the Union Finance Minister in my letter dated 21-6-2021 on inaccuracies in the affidavit filed on behalf of the government before the apex court on the quantum of compensation payable to the victims of Covid virus. I forward here a copy of that letter for your reference.
I understand that the apex court has since fixed the compensation at Rs 50,000 in the case of a death caused by Covid, evidently on the basis of the arguments put forward by the government against paying a higher compensation. The government’s contention in this regard not only shows inadequate appreciation on its part of the circumstances that caused the devastating second wave of Covid but it also indicates its unwillingness to put in place a rational policy on disaster relief. In this regard, the following concerns are of importance.
(1) Enclosed is a copy of the relevant webpage from the portal of the PM’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF) which shows the details of the ex-gratia amounts paid to disaster victims from 2014-15 to 2019-20. It shows that the government had consistently paid Rs 2 lakhs to those losing lives and Rs 50,000 suffering serious injuries. It is therefore inappropriate for the government to argue now before the apex court that the Covid disaster is different from other kinds of disasters and propose a relief at a quarter of its own norm.
(2) Disaster relief norms seem to depend on the ability of the victims to “negotiate” with the government and on extraneous considerations. For example, the ex-gratia amount paid in West Bengal to the so-called victims of “poll violence” was Rs 2 lakhs per person. When the Prime Minister inspected the damage caused by Cyclone Tauktae in May this year, he announced a relief of Rs 2 lakhs per victim to those who lost their lives, as per the PMNRF norm. A couple of days ago, when violence caused the death of several farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri, the UP government, apparently with tacit endorsement of the senior functionaries at the Centre, agreed to provide relief at Rs 45 lakhs per victim. In other words, the quantum of relief is determined on impulsive, spur-of-the-moment decisions. Victims of disasters like the Covid crisis, who cannot negotiate with the government, are forced to accept whatever the government decides. This raises a serious concern about the lack of sensitivity on the part of the government to the plight of the Covid victims.
(3) The crisis caused by the second wave of Covid is largely manmade, driven largely by the politicians’ undue appetite for power and the absence of any rational advance planning. It is still fresh in one’s memory of how senior politicians felt no compunction in gathering and addressing large election rallies in W.Bengal and the other poll-bound States and holding massive public gatherings for religious congregations like the Kumbh Mela, knowing well that each one of these events would eventually become a superspreader, leading to loss of hundreds of innocent lives. It is the unwary citizens that ultimately became the victims of the Covid virus.
(4) The government seems to be blissfully unaware of the manner in which the unplanned campaign against the Covid second wave resulted in public hospitals getting overbooked and the poor forced to scramble to the unregulated private hospitals, only to be fleeced in a brazen manner. It is the poor, who paid the price for this. I am aware of instances in which the poor families, each paying as much as Rs 3-5 lakhs of rupees to private hospitals, exploited their helplessness and charged them indiscriminately, despite the fact that the patients failed to survive. Apparently, there is no rational basis for arriving at the latest norm of Rs 50,000, as it bears no relation to the hospital charges.
(5) Article 21 of the Constitution has provided the citizen with the “right to life”. In the case of the deaths caused by Covid, as explained above, they are largely attributable to the failures on the part of the government, such as, lack of anticipation and planning, inadequacy of hospital infrastructure, oxygen supply shortfalls, delays in vaccination drive and so on. The government, in my view, should have honestly owned its responsibility and compensated the victims on rational considerations by assigning a value to human life on scientific lines. It is unfortunate that no such inputs were provided by the government to the apex court.
(6) In its arguments before the apex court, the government seems to have pleaded that a higher quantum of compensation could not be afforded by it. I am surprised that such an argument should be put forward without the government making an earnest effort to review its own expenditure profile, prioritise the essentials in preference to the non-essentials and create enough space for paying the Covid victims what is legitimately due to them.
(7) The least that the government could have done in this matter is to display its sensitivity to the needs of the poor and agreed to provide compensation to them at the PMNRF norm of Rs 2 lakhs per victim. I find that the averments of the government before the apex court lacked the necessary empathy and sensitivity.
I feel that as a responsible institution acting on behalf of the disadvantaged sections of the population, the government should suo motu agree to a higher compensation, irrespective of what it has committed to the apex court.
E A S Sarma
Former Secretary to Govt of India