Terming Covid as “once in a lifetime pandemic inflicted on the entire world”, the Centre, in the 39-page written submission, said various steps to strategise the nation’s response to the pandemic have been taken and not just the funds of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF), but even the funds of Consolidated Fund of India are being utilised according to advice of experts.
“It is submitted that, as specifically pleaded before this Hon’ble Court, the issue is not of fiscal affordability, but rather of the most rational, judicious and optimum usage of fiscal and all other resources of the nation,” the Centre said.
It said the guidelines, meant for 2015 to 2020, recommended expenditure for providing financial relief against 12 specific identified disasters on the national level that is “cyclone, drought, earthquake, fire, flood, tsunami, hailstorm, landslide, avalanche, cloudburst, pest-attack, frost and cold wave” and the COVID-19 is not included.
“Additionally, the respective state government had been given the flexibility to use up to 10 percent of annual allocation under SDRF, for providing relief to the victims of natural disasters, so notified in the local context,” the affidavit stated.
“It is submitted that information has been received from all the States and UTs in this respect. However, as per information received, it is clarified that no State/UT has provided any ex-gratia to COVID-19 victims from SDRF,” the Centre said.
It further said that in accordance with the recommendations of 15th Finance Commission and the experts, the Union of India devised the strategy to deal with, the extremely contagious, volatile and ever changing impact of the mutations of the virus COVID-19, in the best possible manner utilising all the financial, human and infrastructural resources of the nation, rationally and judiciously.
The affidavit states that the central government has already declared Covid as a “disaster” under the Disaster Management Act.
“However, on the issue of ‘ex-gratia’ assistance on account of loss of life, the guidelines provide that the norms provided by government of India (Ministry of Home Affairs) for assistance from SDRF should be the Minimum Standards of Relief,” it said.
Referring to the recommendations of 15th Finance Commission, it said that while considering the disasters of public health such as pandemics, the commission had observed that it feels that financing of preventive and relief measures for such disasters should be left out of the SDRF and NDRF.
The central government said that, currently there is no guideline/policy/ scheme in NDMA which relates to National Insurance mechanism that may be used to pay for disaster related deaths due to COVID-19.
“In this regard it is submitted that the 15th Finance Committee has proposed four Insurance interventions which need to be studied further by the NDMA and relevant ministries for their feasibility,” it said.
With regard to simplification of process and redressal mechanism for recording reason of death, the affidavit said that the Registrar General of India will be asked to examine the matter in consultation with all the stakeholders for taking appropriate action in the matter.
While reserving the verdict, it had asked the parties to file written submissions in three days and specifically directed the Centre to simplify the process of grant of death certificates to the dependents of those who have died of COVID-19.
Earlier, on June 11, the Centre had told the top court that issues raised in the pleas, seeking directions for ex-gratia compensation of Rs 4,00,000 to the families of those who have died of COVID-19, are “genuine” and are under consideration of the government.
However later, the government said that paying ex-gratia compensation was beyond the fiscal affordability and the finances of central and state governments as they were under severe strain.
The apex court is hearing two separate pleas filed by lawyers Reepak Kansal and Gaurav Kumar Bansal seeking directions to the Centre and the states to provide Rs 4 lakh compensation to the families of coronavirus victims as provisioned under the Act, and a uniform policy for issuing death certificates.