It is a matter of relief and satisfaction that the Supreme Court has prodded the Union government to perform its statutory duty of fixing a compensation for the families of those who lost their kin to the COVID-19 pandemic. The order comes close on the heels of a slew of directions on registering the country’s vast unorganised workforce and its army of inter-State labourers on a national database and ensuring that none of them went hungry. On the issue of making an ex gratia payment to those affected by the pandemic, a notified disaster under the Disaster Management Act, the Centre initially took the untenable stand that it lacked the financial resources to compensate for every COVID-19 death. However, it later admitted that it was not the adequacy of resources that made it avoid any compensation, but rather its decision to prioritise expenditure in response to the pandemic. It is indeed true that unlike more frequent disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes and floods, a pandemic that has hit every country is not a one-time calamity, but an ongoing and prolonged phenomenon. However, the Court has rightly found that this was not reason enough for the Government to evade its duty to include ex gratia assistance on account of loss of life in its guidelines for “minimum standards of relief” to those hit by the disaster. The Court correctly did not fix a compensation amount for each death, leaving it to a policy decision by the National Disaster Management Authority and the Centre.
In an earlier order, the Court dealt with the need for comprehensive registration of all inter-State and unorganised workers in the country. It is unfortunate that it needed a pandemic, and the resulting humanitarian, social and economic crisis for millions of workers, to give an impetus to the process. The Supreme Court, while disposing of suo motu proceedings on the miseries of migrant labourers, has now fixed a deadline of December 31 this year for all States and Union Territories to complete the process. The Centre has been given a deadline of July 31 to make available a portal for its National Database for Unorganised Workers (NDUW) project so that it may be used for registering unorganised workers across the country. However, the Union government, which was directed to make such a common module available to the States as far back as in August 2018, claimed the work on developing the portal was affected due to the fallout of the pandemic. The Court has pulled up the Union Labour Ministry for its “apathy and lackadaisical attitude” and directed that the process of registration should begin by July 31. The verdicts open up the possibility that the inter-State and unorganised workers will at last be able to reap the benefits of welfare laws enacted for them. These interventions signify the rejuvenation and assertion of a court seen as somewhat reticent until recently.