The Madras High Court at Madurai while dealing with the writ petitions filed by the fishermen seeking a writ of Mandamus against the respondents has enhanced the compensation provided to the fishermen whose boats were damaged due to the occurrence of the Gaja Cyclone in the year 2018.

The Court observed that the compensation that is payable in terms of the Statutory Scheme is not a charity.

A Bench of Justice G.R. Swaminathan said –

"In the very nature of things, the process of assessment and disbursement of compensation will have to be individualized when the relief assistance norms provide therefor. In other words, it has to be tailor made for each claimant. The compensation payable to the claimants in terms of the statutory scheme or the government orders is not a bounty or dole or charity. We are a welfare State. Therefore, the norms for payment of relief assistance must be enforced in an objective manner. The rights guaranteed under Article 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India are involved. The assessment process cannot be arbitrary. The authorities must be conscious of the fact that the policy of the government is to enable the affected individuals to stand on their own feet. Fiber boats in this case are a means of livelihood."

The Bench further held that the compensation amounting to Rs, 1,38,000/- and Rs. 1,33,000/- respectively shall be paid to the petitioners within a period of 8 weeks from the date of receipt of the copy of its Order.

The Court also held, "Judged by the aforesaid yardstick, the assessment reports filed by the respondents deserve to be scrapped. It is in mere excel format. The nature of damage suffered by the petitioners has not at all been particularized. The description given is cryptic and absolutely insufficient. The petitioners have made out a case for grant of relief."

Advocate J. Shakila appeared for the petitioners while Special Government Pleader A.K. Manikkam appeared for the respondents.

Facts of the Case –

The petitioners being fishermen filed the present writ petitions seeking compensation of Rs. 1,50,000/- as declared by the State Government for their fully damaged fiber boats. In this case, the petitioners hailing from two different villages of the same District owned reinforced fiber plastic boats. Their boats suffered total damage during Gaja cyclone that struck in the year 2018. They submitted applications to the State Government seeking disbursement of financial assistance. The inspection team constituted by the Department of Fisheries visited their villages and submitted damage assessment reports based on which the petitioners were paid Rs.12,000/- and Rs.17,000/- respectively. The petitioners being dissatisfied and aggrieved by the quantum of compensation paid to them filed the writ petitions. The affidavits were filed in support of the writ petitions and relief was sought for the same.

The respondents filed the counter-affidavits and they contended that the checking team found that the petitioners' boats suffered only slight damage and the same was confirmed during the second verification also.

The High Court in the above regard noted, "I carefully considered the rival contentions and went through the materials on record. It is not in dispute that the petitioners are victims of natural disaster. They have been eking out their lives as fishermen. They were critically dependant on their fibre boats. They claimed that the boats suffered total damage. The question that arises for consideration is whether the authorities properly assessed the damage said to have been suffered by the petitioners."

The Court while referring to the case of Bipinchandra J. Diwan v. State of Gujarat (2001 SCC OnLine Guj 10) observed that natural disasters such as cyclones may strike at any time and during such situations, the State must assume the role of parens patriae and it cannot abdicate its responsibility.

The question of consideration before the Court was regarding the extent of damage suffered by the petitioners. The Court, therefore, stated, "When norms have been laid down for quantifying relief assistance, an objective approach has to be adopted. Of course, the Government cannot be expected to engage licensed loss assessors for disbursing compensation to the victims of natural disaster. But the broad principles that underlie the process of loss assessment by insurers are applicable when the authorities assess damage suffered by citizens during natural calamities. The G.O provides for payment of Rs.1.50 lakhs in case of total damage of fiber boats and Rs.20000/- in case of partial damage. When the claimant asserts that his boat has suffered total damage, the inspecting team has to assign reasons for rejecting his claim."

The Court further said that the inspection team must have at least one official who is having some experience in the field of loss assessment and the team should conduct spot inspection.

The Court also stated, "The affected party must be present. The assessment must be done with reference to the claim particulars. Inspection notes must be prepared at the time of inspection. Its contents must be explained to the victim. His signature or thumb impression must be taken. If the claimant disagrees with the view of the inspection team, that must also be recorded. Photographs must be taken. The damaged object must also be videotaped. The inspection report must describe the nature and extent of damage. It cannot be generally described as partial or total. Such description would suffer from the vice of vagueness. The authority competent to disburse compensation will apply his mind to the view expressed by the claimant at the time of inspection. If there is considerable variance, all the relevant particulars will have to be scrutinized. A wholesale approach cannot be adopted."

Accordingly, the Court allowed the writ petitions and enhanced the compensation.

Cause Title - S. Senthilkumar and Anr. v. The Director of Fisheries Department and Ors.

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