In India, people lose their lives to communal tensions, terrorist attacks, sexual assaults, natural calamities or other such tragedies. The government is duty-bound to help such victims and, at the least, share the financial burden of their families.
What is the value of human life in the eyes of the Indian State? Is there a comprehensive and uniform policy to compensate the victims of particular kind of tragedy?
This is not merely a philosophical question as economists and insurance managers spend countless hours to estimate value of statistical life (VSL) – a monetary value assigned to quantify the risk of (or benefit of avoiding) a fatality.
Our research suggests glaring discrepancies in these hurried announcements of compensations. Should the compensation amount depend on extraneous factors like media coverage, political imperatives and even the person’s caste or religious identity? A cursory look at some of the recent cases clearly reveals uncomfortable facts. In the absence of a uniform policy, the quantum of compensation fluctuates not only for different classes of victims, but even within the same class.
Akhlaq vs Akbar, Pulwama vs Sukma
For example, the family of Mohammed Akhlaq, who was lynched in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri — a case that garnered global headlines — received a compensation of Rs 45 lakh, and four flats in Greater Noida from then-Akhilesh Yadav government. However, the family of Akbar Khan, who was lynched in Rajasthan’s Alwar a few months after the Dadri case, received only Rs 1.25 lakh from then- Vasundhara Raje government and another Rs 8 lakh from the government of his native state Haryana. The families of most lynching victims do not receive any compensation and despite the Supreme Court guidelines directing state governments to frame uniform policies of compensation, only three states have done so far.
A similar discrepancy can be observed with the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) jawans killed in the line of duty. The CAPF jawans’ families get Rs 50-60 lakh as per compensation norms. However, the compensation paid to the families of Pulwama victims much exceeded this amount, probably driven by overwhelming national attention, receiving between Rs 2.16 crore and Rs 3.24 crore. This included Rs 35 lakh from the central government and Rs 15 lakh from the newly launched ‘Bharat Ke Veer’ fund.
Many state governments also contributed eye-catching amounts, considerably larger than those given in similar cases previously. For instance, Bihar’s Nitish Kumar announced Rs 25 lakh additional assistance from the chief minister’s relief fund over and above the Rs 11 lakh announced as ex gratia. However, for the jawans killed by Naxals in the deadly Sukma attacks a year earlier, Nitish Kumar had announced only Rs 5 lakh ex gratia. Similarly, the Punjab government provided Rs 12 lakh for Pulwama jawans but only Rs 5 lakh for Sukma jawans.
Also read: Mainstreaming the lynch-fringe
In the (name of) line of duty
There have been some welcome moves towards framing uniform policies of compensation. For instance, the Punjab government has fixed standard rates of ex gratia compensation of Rs 5 lakh for loss of life occurring due to natural calamities, accidents or man-made disasters. And the Maharashtra government has increased the compensation amount from Rs 25 lakh to Rs 1 crore for families of security personnel from the state who die in the line of duty.
Can the state have differential compensation policies depending upon the reason for loss of life? The Maharashtra government pays only Rs 1 lakh as ex gratia to the families of farmers who commit suicide. This is exceptionally meagre, especially in the state with the highest number of farm-related suicides — more than 15,000 farmers over the last seven years. One might reasonably argue that families of soldiers do deserve better compensation because farmers have not died in the line of ‘duty’ unlike soldiers.
But what about sanitation workers who have died in the sewers while in the line of duty? According to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), the Maharashtra government was yet to pay or confirm payment of compensation in any of the 32 cases of manual scavenging deaths since 1993. A recent RTI application found that only in half of these 814 cases of death in sewers have families received the full compensation amount.
‘Benefits’ of differential compensation
Why do politicians prefer discretionary ex gratia payments as opposed to uniform policy?
First, it gives them political ownership. In high-profile cases, it is the the chief minister or the prime minister who themselves announce the compensation, packaged as personalised patronage. Moreover, the very rationale behind ex gratia payments is to obscure the liability of the state. It suits the political class if people don’t view these compensation as owed to them by right, but rather as discretionary extension of support from the ‘mai baap sarkar’.
Second, announcements by political leaders generate media headlines in a way not possible with impersonal bureaucratic transfers mandated by policy. These media headlines, with big figures in high-profile cases, are a valued instrument to quell public anger. Unlike say an enquiry, these payments are the most immediate and visible way to demonstrate action. In Delhi’s Anaj Mandi fire, while Arvind Kejirwal announced Rs 10 lakh for the dead, PM Modi too pledged an additional Rs 2 lakh.
Third, the discretionary nature of these compensations give ample room for the playing out of political agendas and overt political signalling. In fact, political calculations are virtually baked into the quantum of compensation. This creates enough space for political outbidding, and incentivises protests by locals as the only way to get adequate compensation. For example, the relatives of Rakbar Khan (the victim of mob lynching from Alwar, Rajasthan) placed his dead body on the Delhi-Alwar highway demanding the arrest of all the accused and financial support for his family. Similarly, the family of Ravin, one of the accused in Akhlaq’s lynching, who died in custody, received Rs 25 lakh compensation due to pressures from local politicians and community leaders.
What separates the state from particularistic societal organisations are impersonal processes and impartial justice. However, the arbitrary nature of compensations to treat same class of victims differentially lowers the credibility and the dignity of the state.
Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), Delhi. Asim Ali is Research Associate at CPR. Views are personal.