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The Worth Of A Life: Why India Needs A New National Compensation Policy

14/08/2015 8:16 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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The idea of a nation rests on its constituents believing in the concept of a state as bigger than a land mass. There is no other explanation why in a country like India, in the absence of a compulsory draft, youngsters voluntarily sign up for the armed forces and similar dangerous jobs.

A news item caught my attention recently. In the aftermath of the Gurdaspur terror attack, the family of the slain SP refused to cremate him until all his children were given high-ranking government positions. This was on top of the cash compensation announced by the state and the Centre. Then there was the case of a high-profile murder case in Delhi. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced an ex-gratia payment of Rs 5 lakhs to the family, but politely refused when he was asked to award the same sum to other victims of murder. Clearly, the lack of a national policy allows politicians to get into a game of one-upmanship depending on the media coverage an event receives.

"[T]he government should base ex-gratia payments on a victim's potential future earnings, his/her age, as well as the level of negligence he/she suffered."

Then there is the differential compensation given to families of soldiers who die in the line of duty -- compensation for getting killed in a major attack is much higher than one for a lesser known ambush. In 2008, Minister of State for Defence admitted in Parliament that Kargil martyrs and those wounded in Operation Vijay received Rs 11.5 lakh more than those in other military operations. Again, this could be directly attributed to the amount of media attention the issue receives and the number of governing bodies involved. Even here, in multiple cases, the widows of the soldiers received all the money leaving the parents in a state of misery.

Recently, the Bihar government announced ex-gratia compensation of Rs 4 lakh of those killed in the April earthquake, whereas in the case of a recent train accident in MP, the next of kin were awarded a compensation of Rs 2 lakh only. In both the cases, the victims died in their sleep due to factors beyond their control.

This anomaly continues in another provision awarding jobs on compassionate grounds to families of government servants who die while in service. It is not required that the death of the person concerned was while rendering the service. Hence, even if someone dies at 59 of a heart attack, his family is often eligible to get a job on compassionate grounds. No such provision exists, however, for families of people working in the private sector. In 2012, the Supreme Court observed that "Appointment on compassionate grounds cannot be claimed as a matter of right. As a rule, public service appointments should be made strictly on the basis of open invitation of applications and merit." However, that does not stop families from making such demands, primarily because a government job is still considered to be the most stable source of livelihood.

I believe that the government should base ex-gratia payments on a victim's potential future earnings, his/her age, as well as the level of negligence he/she suffered. Victims can, of course, seek legal recourse but the lengthy process deters many.

"The best kind of nation treats all its citizens equally, in front of or away from the spotlight."

We need to study the system the USA followed after the 9/11 attacks. The US Congress set up a September 11th Victim Compensation Fund soon after the attacks. Payouts to families of the deceased were decided on a case-to-case basis, taking into consideration the economic losses suffered due to sudden death, the emotional burden it placed on the family of the victim as well as the worth of the family's existing collateral sources of income or insurance, with a minimum $500,000 for deceased with dependents.

In India, the multiplicity of agencies and politicians on the prowl for populist measures only complicate matters. We need to create a new committee to study the various compensations (monetary/ employment/non-monetary) awarded in the last five years and highlight the differences. Then we need to create a framework for compensation in all possible scenarios. Such a system would lay clear guidelines for any compensation to be awarded and will mitigate the media factor to treat the loss of life/health as the same in all circumstances.

The best kind of nation treats all its citizens equally, in front of or away from the spotlight.

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