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Supreme Court Rules on Disaster Management Act and Directs the Issue of Grant of Ex Gratia Compensation to Families of Ones Who Succumbed to COVID-19

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This case dealt with the issue of grant of ex gratia monetary compensation of Rs 4 lakhs to the families of individuals who succumbed to Covid -19. 

Facts in Brief

A PIL was filed before the Supreme Court under Article 32 to direct the Respondents, Central, and the State Governments to grant ex gratia compensation of Rs 4 lakhs to families of persons, who succumbed to Covid -19 by placing reliance on the Disaster Management Act, 2005. 

The contention of the Petitioners 

The Petitioners contended that Covid -19 had been identified as a notified disaster by the Ministry of Home Affairs vide letter dated 14.3.2020, therefore, the provisions of the Disaster Management Act would apply in the present situation. Further, they contended that Section 12 of the Act mandated the National Authority to recommend minimum standards of reliefs to individuals affected by a disaster, including payment of ex gratia compensation on a loss of life. They further contended that Section 12 imposed a statutory duty to provide compensation and further, Article 21 of the Constitution guaranteed the Right to Life from which the Right to Compensation could also be drawn. They further contended that the word “shall” was used in section 12 DMA Act, 2005 twice that depicted the intention of the legislature to impose mandatory compliance. 

The contention of the Respondents 

The Respondents contended that there was no iota of a doubt that provisions of the DMA Act would apply to Covid -19 and the matter was not concerned with financial constraints, rather it was one of priorities and policy. They further contended as Covid -19 was an ever-evolving disaster, the “Minimum standards of relief” mentioned under Section 12  should be tested on the different anvils as compared to other disasters. Further, they contended that the word “shall” be interpreted as “may” in the light of peculiar facts and steps undertaken by Union of India. 

Court’s Observation

The Court stated that it was a well-settled principle of judicial conduct to not intervene in the matters of policy as it was exclusively the domain of the Executive, but it would interfere if the policy is contrary to any statute or the Constitution. By stating the above reason, the Court examined the matter. On the question of whether the word  “shall” be construed as “may,” the Court observed that the intention of the legislature while enacting the statute was to be considered while deciding this issue. The Court examined this issue and concluded that the statement and object of the DMA act clearly stated that the act was brought into existence to prevent and mitigate the effect the disasters. Keeping this in mind, the Court examined the provisions relating to National authority and after examination, it concluded that Section 6(1) of the Act imposes a mandatory duty on the authority to frame policies, plans and recommend provision for funds for mitigation purpose and further the use of the word  “shall” twice in  Section 12 indicated legislative intent to impose a duty on the national authority to recommend” minimum standards of relief” including ex gratia compensation to be provided to persons affected by a disaster. The Court for interpreting this provision in a way it did, relied on the Bhavnagar University case where it was stated when words of a statute were unambiguous the Court would construe it strictly.

Court’s Decision

The Court ruled that Section 12 of The Disaster Management Act,2005 imposed a mandatory duty on the National Authority to act under the said provision and further left the question of recommendation of compensation to be decided by the National Authority.

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