SC makes another decisive intervention to bring relief to people

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By K Raveendran

The Supreme Court has once again taken a proactive step to bring succour to the disadvantaged people by declaring that the dependents of those who lost their lives due to the Covid pandemic are entitled to receive compensation from the government just like victims of other natural calamities.

The court has directed the National Disaster Management Authority to work out guidelines within the next six weeks for payment of ex-gratia relief to the victim’s families.

In passing a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court bench, constituted by Justices Ashok Bhushan and M R Shah, rejected the Union government’s contention that Covid was not a natural disaster of the type of one-time events such as earthquakes or floods and, therefore, the provisions of the Disaster Management Act. The court also refused to accept the government’s argument that the financial burden of such relief would be beyond the capacity of the government to bear, but stopped short of recommending any specific figure.

The latest judgment comes after a series of decisive interventions by the apex court to bring an insensitive administration to the line and address the serious issues of Covid management, particularly, the right of all people to get vaccinated against the dreaded pandemic, the supply of oxygen, and medical equipment, etc., when the Modi government preferred to look the other way, although Covid patients were dropping dead on the middle of the road as they struggled to breathe.

The government argued that there is no precedent of giving ex- gratia for an ongoing disease or for any disaster event of long duration, extending for several months or years, and granting ex-gratia for one disease, while denying the same for those accounting for a larger share of mortality, would not be fair and would create unfairness and invidious discrimination.

But there was a clear dichotomy in the government stand. The government was seeking selective application of the Disaster Management Act in using the law to impose restrictions in movement and other curbs on the people, but refusing to honour the provisions of the same law when it came to providing relief to the affected families. In fact, there have been hair-splitting arguments about the use of ‘shall’ in section 12 of the Disaster Management Act to escape from the mandatory nature of the provision. But the court stood its ground and rejected the government’s contentions.

We have seen how the Supreme Court in recent times has brought in a paradigm shift in its approach towards larger issues facing people, especially when the government responsible for ameliorating those conditions was running away from its responsibilities. There have been landmark rulings to bring relief to migrant workers, who received a raw deal at the hands of an insensitive government, which even refused to accept the existence of such a massive problem. It was only due to the intervention of the Supreme Court that the central and state governments were forced to provide relief to the suffering ‘reverse’ migrants, thousands of whom perished while undertaking the long march towards an uncertain and insecure future.

The court’s bold moves came even at the risk of being criticised for over-reach, inviting the wrath of the so-called constitutional puritans, who could not reconcile to the idea of the court crossing the contours of legislative and executive powers. But the court took up the challenge and came out with flying colours, intervening effectively when without such intervention there would be no delivery of justice and fairness.

The change of approach was all the more remarkable, as this was followed by a phase during which the highest court of the land was criticised by conscientious people, including retired judges and legal luminaries, for maintaining studied silence and indifference to pressing problems faced by the people, particularly in the wake of the national lockdown to deal with the outbreak of Covid pandemic. But then on, the court took the form of a new avatar that sympathised with the subjects rather than the rulers.

The court also took to the suo-moto route to take up many of these causes, leading to the pronouncement of landmark decisions. Even as this raised eyebrows in terms of procedural implications, it has strengthened people’s faith and confidence in the judiciary as the dispenser of justice and fairness against all odds. (IPA Service)

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