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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Supreme Court pulls up states over low Covid-19 ex-gratia numbers

The court on Wednesday pointed to discrepancies in the data submitted by some states like Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. The bench, which took up the matter in the pre-lunch session via video conference, asked the chief secretaries of Andhra Pradesh and Bihar to appear before it at 2 pm.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
Updated: January 20, 2022 6:14:30 am
SC said it rejects the Covid-19 death toll given by Bihar, and pointed out that these are not actual but government figures.

EXPRESSING DISPLEASURE at the relatively low disbursal numbers in most states, the Supreme Court on Wednesday directed state governments not to reject any claims for ex-gratia payment for Covid-19 deaths on “technical grounds”.

“We make it clear that no claims be rejected on technical grounds. Claimants be given a chance to rectify their applications and such claims be seen by grievance redressal committee within a week from today,” said a bench of Justices M R Shah and Sanjeev Khanna.

Hearing petitions seeking monetary compensation for Covid-19 deaths, the court had in June last year asked the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to consider fixing the ex-gratia amount. The NDMA recommended payment of Rs 50,000 compensation — to be paid from the State Disaster Relief Fund — to the next of kin of the deceased. This was accepted by the court in October last year.

The court on Wednesday pointed to discrepancies in the data submitted by some states like Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. The bench, which took up the matter in the pre-lunch session via video conference, asked the chief secretaries of Andhra Pradesh and Bihar to appear before it at 2 pm.

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Appearing for the Andhra Pradesh government, Advocate Mahfooz Nazki urged the court not to issue a showcause notice to the state chief secretary. But the court did not agree. “It is unfortunate that directions of this court are taken so lightly. Your chief secretary and chief minister are not above the law. People are not at your mercy. Ask them to be present at 2 pm,” said the bench.

When the two chief secretaries appeared in the afternoon, the court asked Andhra Pradesh to reach out all those whose claims had been rejected incorrectly and give them the opportunity to correct their applications. Of the 36,205 applications for claims, the state paid only 11,464. The official death count was 14,471.

“It is very serious that the record maintained by you was faulty. You are dismissing the applications on defects. Please get it rechecked. The money should reach the people and that is our goal,” said Justice Shah.

Pulling up the Andhra Pradesh government, the court said: “It is unfortunate that despite our earlier directions, and directions issued from time to time, there is total callousness and negligence on the part of” the state.

Nazki said about 31,000 claims had been cleared and would be paid soon.

The bench, however, said the state did not appear to be serious about complying with its order. “No justification has been offered for not making payment to those whose applications are found to be in order,” it said, and warned that it was tantamount to disobedience of its earlier directions and the chief secretary was liable for action under the Contempt of Courts Act.

The Andhra Pradesh chief secretary assured prompt action. “We will have it verified. We will be in contempt if it’s not done,” he said.

Recording the state chief secretary’s assurance that not a single eligible claimant would be deprived, the bench said: “We trust and hope that the chief secretary will stand by what he has assured to this court.”

According to data submitted by Bihar, the state recorded 12,090 deaths, received 11,095 claims, and paid compensation to 9,821 people.

“We are not ready to believe that only 12,000 persons died in Bihar,” the bench said. Asking “what is the actual figure”, the bench said the total death count had increased in many states as they were now being honest about it.

Justice Khanna said the state had said that those who do not get the benefit are likely to be the uneducated or poor. “So extra effort is needed to reach them, and the effort should not be on paper. Payments have to be actually made,” he said.

The court also questioned Gujarat on rejection of claims and sought to know the reason. “Why didn’t you upload the reasons,” Justice Khanna asked the counsel appearing for Gujarat. Of the 89,633 claims received, the state has paid 58,840. The official death count is eight times less – 10,094.

Kerala said it recorded 49,300 deaths till January 10 this year, and had received 27,274 claims of which 23,652 had been paid while 178 were rejected and 891 were returned. The bench asked why the state had received fewer applications as compared to the death toll. “Every state has received more applications, why not yours,” said the bench, and asked the state to decide pending claims within a week.

The counsel appearing for Punjab said 8,786 claims had been received, of which 6,667 had been paid. The official death count is 16,557.

“The poorest may not even have the information” about the ex-gratia and how to apply, said Justice Khanna. Pointing out “discrepancy coming in state-wise”, he sought to know the reason.

To address this, the bench said it proposed to involve the state and district legal services authorities in areas where the applications received were less than the number of registered deaths. It said it would pass orders on this on Thursday.

The bench also referred to children who had been orphaned during the pandemic, as reflected on the Bal Swaraj portal maintained by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR).

Saying that approximately 10,000 children had lost both their parents, the bench said it would be difficult for these children to apply for compensation. It directed states “to reach out to those children… so that the compensation can be paid to them”. It clarified that payments must be made only to the children, and not to any other relative.

The bench underlined the need for a proactive approach in the matter, saying it was important for money to reach the families who may be in dire need.

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