Oct 21, 2020

The present case deals with the implementation of the Disaster Management Act of 2005 with two aspects. The first is concerning the National Disaster Management Plan envisaged under Section 11 of the Act and the Minimum standard of relief under Section 12 of the Act. The second is concerning the 'Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund' (hereinafter referred to as the PM CARES Fund) and National Disaster Relief Fund.

The facts of the case are that the Centre for Public Litigation filed a writ petition concerning the global pandemic due to Covid-19 pointing out that the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (hereinafter referred to as DMA) had not been met. The petition included three main aspects. Firstly, the petition demands the creation of a National Disaster Management Plan as per Section 11 read with Section 10 of the Act stating that the plan which was approved and published in November 2019 was unable to meet the demands of the present pandemic. Secondly, the petition contains that there must be minimum standards of relief that need to be brought about by the state as in accordance with Section 12 (ii) and (iii) of the Act. Thirdly the contention states that all contribution that has been made concerning the pandemic towards the PM CARES Fund must be transferred to the National Disaster Relief Fund (hereinafter referred to as NDRF) and the utilization from the latter has to be done as per Section 46 of the Act.

The respondent that is the Union of India had firstly raised objections regarding the locus standi of the petitioner in the case alleging that whether a permanent body could be set up for filing of litigation issues.  The contentions of the Respondents also included that the National Disaster Management Plan, November 2019 already exists and that there is no need for a new plan as the existing plan was sufficient to address the issues of the pandemic, that there had been several guidelines released by the state regarding the minimum standard of relief and that the Ministry of Health and Family Health Systems had duly taken responsibility concerning the discharge of the same. Concerning the PM CARES Fund and NDRF, the respondent stated that the former was a fund with a voluntary donation and that there has been the release of funds from NDRF. Also, the council stated that the NDRF does not restrict the creation of other voluntary funds and the need to transfer the funds from the PM CARES Fund to NDRF was not maintainable.

The Supreme Court, in this regard, formulated five questions to be answered concerning this petition. They were,

 “I) Whether the Union of India under Section 11 of the Act is obliged to prepare, notify and implement a National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP)specifically for pandemic COVID-19 irrespective of National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP) notified in November 2019? 

II) Whether the Union of India is obliged to lay down the minimum standards of relief under Section 12 of the Act for COVID-19 irrespective of earlier guidelines issued Under Section 12 of the Act, 2005 laying down the minimum standards of relief?

 III) Whether Union of India is obliged to utilize the National Disaster Response Fund created under Section 46 of the Act to assist in the fight of COVID-19? 

IV) Whether all the contributions/grants from individuals and institutions should be credited to the NDRF in terms of Section 46(1) (b) of the Act rather than to PM CARES Fund? 

V) Whether all the funds collected in the PM CARES Fund till date be directed to be transferred to the NDRF?”

The Court analyzed the provision that is Section 11 of the DMA and the existing National Plan,2019 and stated that "Biological and Public Health Emergencies has already been contemplated in the National Plan, 2019, which as noticed in table 1-1 under paragraph 1.13.1 specifically includes epidemics: Viral, Bacterial, Parasitic, Fungal and prion infections. Novel Coronavirus is an epidemic which has become a pandemic.” The Court stated that the National Disaster Management Authority had approved the plan. Concerning the first question the Court has stated that it does not find any merit in the petitioner's claim of a  need to have a new plan as the overall plan exists to deal with the situation of pandemic and is also coupled by orders and measures undertaken by the authorities competent under the Act.

Concerning the second issue, the Court highlighted that there had been guidelines even before Covid-19 that was submitted to the Court by the respondent, and that such guidelines define the standard minimum relief measures and observed that, "The uniform guidelines are contemplated so that persons affected by the disaster are provided with the minimum requirement in the relief camps in respect of shelter, food, drinking water, medical cover and sanitation and other reliefs as contemplated in the section. There were already guidelines for minimum standards in place even before COVID-19, the said guidelines for minimum standards holds good even for those who are affected by COVID-19. Section 12 does not contemplate that afresh guidelines for the minimum standards of relief be issued concerning COVID-19. The prayer of the petitioner to direct the Union of India to issue new guidelines Under Section 12 to be provided to persons infected with COVID-19 is misconceived.”

The final three issues were summed up as one and dealt together as all of them dealt with the PM CARES Fund and NDRF. The Apex court distinguished the character of both the funds. The NDRF is identified to be “ a statutory fund required to be audited by the Comptroller & Auditor General of India, which was constituted under Act, 2005 and is still in existence for the purposes as enumerated in the statute as well as in the guidelines issued under Act, 2005” whereas the PM CARES Fund "consists entirely of voluntary contributions from individuals/organizations and does not get any budgetary support. No Government money is credited in the PM CARES Fund”

The petitioner contended that the guidelines that came up in 2015-2016 made sure that not everyone could donate to NDRF and that the guidelines paved the way for the PM CARES Fund. The Court clarified that the guidelines did nothing of such nature and that the fund is still the d=same as it can receive funds from any person and it is illogical to state that it paves the way for the new PM CARES FUND as it only came up in 2020. The Court has observed that the fund from NDRF is being utilized by providing occurrences of the same and that there has been no violation of Section 46 of the Act.

The Court pointed out that, "The Union of India can very well utilize the NDRF for assisting in the fight of COVID-19 pandemic by way of releasing funds on the request of the States as per new guidelines. Any contribution, grant of any individual or institution is not prevented from being credited into the NDRF, and it is still open for any person or institution to contribute to the NDRF in terms of Section 46(1)(b) of the Act, 2005. The contribution by any person or by any institution in the PM CARES Fund is voluntary, and it is open for any person or institution to contribute to the PM CARES Fund. The funds collected in the PM CARES Fund are entirely different funds which are funds of a public charitable trust, and there is no occasion for issuing any direction to transfer the said funds to the NDRF.”

The PM CARES Fund enjoyed high publicity due to the pandemic, and the laymen were influenced to think that the Government lacked funds to meet the crisis. The absence of a provision to audit the fund created chaos in the mind of the public. The present petition and the judgement regarding the same assurance that the legislation for disasters that is the National Disaster Management Act is rightly in place and being implemented.