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Failure To Disburse COVID Death Compensation : Chief Secretaries Of Bihar & AP Appear Before Supreme Court; Assure Compliance

Sohini Chowdhury
19 Jan 2022 2:19 PM GMT
Failure To Disburse COVID Death Compensation : Chief Secretaries Of Bihar & AP Appear Before Supreme Court; Assure Compliance
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On Wednesday, the Supreme Court lashed out at the States of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh for not complying with its earlier directions in disbursing ex-gratia compensation to the kin/family of the persons who have died due to COVID-19. Satisfied that the States have failed to comply with its previous orders, a bench comprising Justices M.R. Shah and Sanjiv Khanna issued show cause notices...

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court lashed out at the States of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh for not complying with its earlier directions in disbursing ex-gratia compensation to the kin/family of the persons who have died due to COVID-19.

Satisfied that the States have failed to comply with its previous orders, a bench comprising Justices M.R. Shah and Sanjiv Khanna issued show cause notices to the Chief Secretaries of the two States. Upon hearing the submissions made by the Counsels and relying on the assurances given by the Chief Secretaries, the Bench granted some time to do the needful. It further noted that the Chief Secretaries ought to ensure that all efforts are made to reach out to the eligible claimants and compensate them.

Bihar

At the outset the Bench expressed its displeasure that the State of Bihar was not updating the data for the death caused due to COVID-19. The Bench was utterly surprised that the death toll as per record was a mere 12090. Observing that pursuant to the order of the Court that, inter alia, anybody who had died within thirty days of testing positive would be eligible to claim ex-gratia compensation, the other states have witnessed an increase in the numbers of claims. It was noted that, unfortunately, the same was not true for Bihar. In view of the same the Bench directed the Chief Secretary to be present virtually at 2 P.M. to explain the failure of the Government in updating the record.

"Call your Chief Secretary to remain present. We are not ready to accept that 12,000 had died in Bihar."

Despite the assurance given by the Advocate, Mr. Akshay Shrivastava, appearing for the State of Bihar, that he would file an affidavit with the latest record, the Bench was convinced that the presence of the Chief Secretary would be required in the matter.

"Your Chief Secretary should not shy away from appearing before us."

At 2 P.M. when the Bench assembled the Chief Secretary of Bihar, Mr. Amir Subhani marked his virtual presence. Advocate, Mr. Abhinav Mukerji appearing on behalf of the State of Bihar submitted to the Bench that initial death toll in March was 3,737 and after giving wide publicity the said data was revised twice, once in June and then in July. As per the data till 11.01.2022, the deaths recorded was 12,090. Subsequently 1187 more reports of deaths and claims had been received by the Government. The Bench was categorically informed that the State was granting Rs. 4,50,000 for each COVID death, which is more than what the other States are paying.

The Bench was concerned that the State had only received 11,095 claims as per the latest record.

"Why only 11095 applications have been received. Either you have not been able to reach them or your efforts have not reached them to make application. Your application should have increased."

Mr. Mukerji reiterated that 1187 more claims have been received after 11.01.2022.

He further added that he had been informed by the Health Department that Bihar had the lowest positivity ratio during the previous two waves and he assumed that the same might be the reason for the lower number of deaths recorded in the State. He assured the Bench that the payments would be made at the earliest.

"I was told by the Health Dept. that we have the lowest positivity ratios in the first and second waves. Maybe that is why deaths have been low. All these people are going to get compensation. We have been paying even before your lordships are ordered. We are ensuring that money is transferred directly through the bank. We will make sure that the amount is disbursed."

Referring to pg. 14 of the affidavit filed by the State of Bihar, Advocate, Mr. Gaurav Bansal, the applicant pointed out that the low death toll in the State could be attributed to the review committee that it had appointed to scrutinise the applications received.

The Bench was perturbed that Bihar was also walking on the footsteps of Gurajat, which had constituted a similar scrutiny committee in derogation of the orders passed by the Apex Court.

"This is contrary to our order. We never said to constitute a scrutiny committee for applications received. This was exactly what was done by Gujarat."

Mr. Mukerji assured the Bench that the committee was set-up to assist the claimants who do not have the requisite reports and not to act as an impediment for disbursal of compensation.

"This is to ensure that if there is no report then that would be reviewed. We don't want to deprive anybody."

Referring to the directions passed on the previous occasion, the Bench stated that if RT PCR report was not available then the supporting medical reports can be looked at.

Mr. Mukerji informed the Bench that, that was precisely the responsibility that the Committee was entrusted with.

On perusal of the affidavit referred to by Mr. Bansal the Bench asked the State Government to come up with a better notification. It further cautioned the State, that on technical grounds the applications ought not to be rejected.

Elaborating on the intention to set up the Committees, Mr. Mukerji submitted that the majority population of Bihar are poor and not literate, which might act as a stumbling block in making their claims. The Committees are supposed to provide assistance in this regard.

"That is the intent of these committees. Unfortunately, the majority of my state is very poor and not very literate and in the absence of this many people may not get the documents required… These committees help them and get the process rolling."

Turning to the Chief Secretary, the Bench expressed its dissatisfaction -

"Mr. Chief Secretary we are not satisfied with the number of applications received."

As the Chief Secretary was not audible, Mr. Mukerji went on to assure that the compensation would be paid expediently.

Justice Sanjiv Khanna was of the opinion that given the fact that the poorest of the poor would face the maximum difficulty in making the application, the State has to make some extra efforts. Lauding the State for granting a sum of Rs. 4,50,000, he observed that the same would do no good if not disbursed effectively.

"In most cases those who have not applied are the most backward economically and socially. Some extra effort is required by the State Govt, to reach out to them. It is good that you are paying Rs. 4,50,000. It will help them to stand up once again. So the efforts should not remain on paper. We would know the success of the stand only if we know that the number of applications have gone up substantially and the payments are actually made."

Considering the submissions made by the Counsel, the Bench recorded the order asking the State to make extra effort to reach out to the eligible claimants -

"So far as the State of Bihar is concerned it appears out of 13,250 no. of deaths recorded, 11,095 claims have been received. Compared to other states the applications/claims received by Bihar can be said to be on a lower side. Looking into the peculiarity of the state, more efforts are to be made by the State to reach the eligible person/kin/family members of persons who died due to COVID-19. Some extra efforts to be made by the State of Bihar for the same."

Andhra Pradesh

The Government of Andhra Pradesh had also incurred the displeasure of the Bench, primarily, because of the slow pace of disbursal.

At the outset Advocate, Mr. Mahfooz Nazki appearing on behalf of the State of Andhra Pradesh apologised for the delay.

"I have extremely sorry. I have conveyed your lordships' displeasure to the authorities. They have made some progress."

The Bench was convinced that there was no progress made by the State. It noted that out of 36,000 applications received disbursal has been made for only 11,000 claimants.

"What progress. All these people are not at the mercy of your Govt. According to you 36,000 applied and you paid only 11,000. Tell us why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against your Chief Minister and Chief Secretary. Compliance of our order is not depending upon your mercy."

Mr. Nazki apprised the Bench that 31,000 applications have been found to be in order and they are being processed for payments.

Concerned that the States are flouting the orders of the Supreme Court with impunity, the Bench directed the presence of the Chief Secretary of Andhra Pradesh.

"Tell your Chief Secretary to be present at 2 o'clock on virtual."

Mr. Nazki pleaded with the Bench to grant him a day or two for compliance and not issue the show cause notice to the Chief Secretary at this stage.

The Bench remarked -

"Sufficient time is given, you have already received 36,000…You have paid only one-third…How many times do we have to issue directions."

With respect to the issuance of show cause notice, the Bench stated -

"Today itself we will pass an order to send him to jail, if by 2 o'clock…We are satisfied that there is a noncompliance, no show cause is also required to be issued…The Supreme Court's directions are taken so lightly, they are not above law."

Recording the 'callousness and negligence' on part of the State of Andhra Pradesh, the Bench directed -

"It appears the state is not at all serious in compliance with the orders of this court and directions issued from time to time. There is no justification by the Counsel for not making payment to the claimants whose applications have been received and found in order.. Not making payment to eligible claimants would tantamount to disobedience of our earlier order…for which the Chief Secretary is liable for action under Contempt of Courts Act. Let the Chief Secretary remain present virtually at 2 o'clock today and show cause why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against him…."

At 2 P.M. the Chief Secretary was virtually present before the Court. Senior Advocate, Mr. R. Basant appearing on behalf of the State of Andhra Pradesh apologised at the outset. The Bench was disappointed that it has to nudge the Chief Secretary from time to time to make the payments.

"Every time we have to tell your Chief Secretary, please make the payment…We have already told ten times to Andhra Pradesh to make the payment."

Mr. Basant provided the latest data to the Bench -

"At present 41,292 applications have been received. We have an authority to process this and find those who are eligible and we have found that 34,819 are eligible. There is a provision for appeal to the Grievance Committee. The Chief Secretary is already instructing to suo moto review what remains. We are looking at it that not one eligible person is left at the lurch."

The Bench was further apprised that 34,819 applicants were found to be eligible and 23,835 claimants were paid.

Rivetingly, the Bench noted that the number of applicants who had been paid was only 11464 in the morning and suddenly now it had increased. Mr. Basant informed the Court that the same was due to some confusion in reading the data. He pointed out -

"As of now 23,835 have already been paid. 10,984 to be paid. Out of that 5141 have been cleared by now."

Mr. Basant assured the Court that the disbursal to the 5141 applicants would be made in three days' time. He submitted that for some cases the accounts are yet to be received, for some documents are to be verified and for 2107 applications the State had noticed that the claimant's bank accounts have become inoperative. He informed the Court that steps were being taken to reactivate those accounts.

"Some documents verified, some accounts have to be verified, we will have sure the officers go to the people and get it done. Kindly give us two weeks time to do everything."

The Bench noted, "We have been granting two weeks' time for the past 6 months."

Mr. Basant clarified that for 5141 applicants he didn't need two weeks' time. The said time was sought qua suo moto review, documents not furnished and bank accounts not being reactivated.

The Bench expressed its concern -

"Our anxiety is this: why do you work only when the Court directs you to do work. Why are you not so sensitive to the cause?"

The Bench asked if the 41,000 applications received were over and above the registered deaths.

"14471 deaths were registered. The particulars are already with you. You received 41292. Is this 41292 including the death registered?"

Mr. Basant responded that the applications received include the registered deaths. He further stated -

"If one registered death is not in the 41292 we will make sure that relief goes to them as well."

The Chief Secretary of Andhra Pradesh, Mr. Sameer Sharma apprised the Court that in the initial applications some particulars were missing and therefore some time was spent on reconstructing the missing links.

"My sincere and deepest apologies for what has happened. I take personal responsibility now, that we will do it. The 14000 which were given initially some have names, some have only age. We tried to reconstruct the missing links and include in 14000."

The Bench observed -

"It is very serious that the record maintained by you is faulty."

Mr. Sharma clarified that initially the applications suffered from such inadequacies. However, the State has filled in the particulars. He asserted that all the applications received include the applicants whose family-member's death was already recorded by the State. However, he said that he would recheck the numbers .

"When they gave it they entered it that way. Now, we have filled in the details. All that is part of 41,000. I will get it rechecked. I will stand in contempt of court if it is not done."

The Bench cautioned the State not to reject applications on technical grounds.

"And don't reject applications on technical grounds. Give them opportunity to rectify the mistake."

Assuring the Bench to get the rejected applications reviewed by the Appellate Committee, Mr. Sharma submitted -

"I will get the rejected applications reviewed by the Committee, which the Hon'ble judges had appointed. Our revenue inspectors will go to the family if the bank account is inactive we will make sure it is done. I assure you of that."

The Bench remarked -

"See to it that next time you do not come here in such an awkward position…We also don't want to call you like this. We have no other alternative."

Mr. Sharma assured the Court that the compensation would be disbursed to the eligible claimants without delay.

"Rest assured Sir that it would be done. This is my commitment to you."

Considering the submissions of the Counsel and on the assurance of the Chief Secretary, the Bench passed the following order -

"As per order passed by this court Chief Secretary of Andhra Pradesh and Bihar have remained present through virtual mode. Shri R. Basant appears on behalf of the State of Andhra Pradesh. It is reported that the State has received 41492 claims out of which 34819 are found to be eligible and approx 6400 cases are rejected. It is reported that out of the eligible claimants 23,835 have received compensation and 10984 are now to be paid out of which 5141 claims are cleared and the payment shall be made within a period of 3 days from today. He had also states at the Bar that 6400 cases rejected the Grievance Redressal committee shall suo moto review all those case and if it is found that the cases are rejected due to insufficient information or documents or their bank account not activated, the State shall reach to all such claimants and give them opportunity to remove the defects…Chief Secretary of Andhra Pradesh has assured the Court that the state shall ensure that not a single eligible claimant shall be deprived of the compensation and all efforts shall be made to reach out to them and compensation is paid. We trust and hope the Chief Secretary will stand by what he has assured before the Court."

[Case Title: Gaurav Bansal v. Union of India]

Click Here To Read/Download Order


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