`PM, CMs have discretion in relief fund disbursal`

The SC has ruled that PM and CMs have the discretion to disburse amounts from relief funds to victims of calamities and crime.

New Delhi: Upholding Rajasthan government`s decision to give variable compensation to rape victims, the Supreme Court has ruled that Prime Minister and Chief Ministers have the discretion to disburse amounts from relief funds to victims of calamities and crime.

The apex court, however, added that such discretion is not "unfettered" as governments cannot act on "whims and fancies".

A bench of justices RV Raveendran and AK Patnaik quashed a Rajasthan High Court judgement which had ruled that a Chief Minister cannot grant compensation from his relief
fund in an "arbitrary manner" to rape victims and the compensation must be uniform.

The disbursal of relief amount is purely ex-gratia at the discretion of the Chief Minister.

The Relief Fund Rules do not give any right to victims to demand or claim monetary relief under the fund, Justice Raveendran, writing the judgement, said.

The apex court, however, clarified that all functionaries of the state are expected to act in accordance with law, eschewing unreasonableness, arbitrariness or discrimination.

"They cannot act on whims and fancies. In a democracy governed by the rule of law, no government or authority has the right to do what it pleases.

"Where the rule of law prevails, there is nothing like unfettered discretion or unaccountable action. But this does not mean that no discretion can be vested in an authority or
functionary of high standing," the bench said.

The apex court passed the judgement while upholding an appeal filed by the Rajasthan Government challenging the High Court`s direction.

"Another example is the relief funds placed at the disposal of the holders of high office like Prime Minister or Chief Ministers of states to provide timely assistance to victims of natural calamities, disasters, and traumatic experiences, or to provide medical or financial aid to persons in distress and needy, among other purposes," the bench said.

The High Court had passed the impugned judgement on the PIL of legislator Sanyam Lodha.

The MLA had alleged that during January 2004 to August, 2005, challans or chargesheets were filed in 392 cases relating to rape of minors and out of them 377 did not get any
relief or assistance from the relief fund.

Lodha said 13 were granted relief ranging from Rs 10,000 to 50,000. One victim was given Rs 3,95,000 on August 11, 2004, and another victim was given Rs 5 lakh on June 25, 2005.

According to him, if there were 392 victims of rape, they should all be similarly treated and if some are given relief, others also be given similar relief. The view was endorsed by
the High Court.

Lodha complained that the high compensation was given to certain victims on account of the media focus in such issues.

The apex court said the Chief Minister`s Relief Fund do not specifically provide for compensation to rape victims.

"Monetary relief under the Relief Fund Rules may be granted or restricted in exceptional cases where the victims of offences, have been subjected to shocking trauma and cruelty.

"Naturally any public outcry or media focus may lead to identifying or choosing the victim for the purpose of grant of relief. Other victims who are not chosen will have to take
recourse to the ordinary remedies available in law," the apex court observed.

According to the bench, grant of relief depends upon several circumstances like age of the victim, the shocking or gruesome nature of the incident or accident or calamity and
other factors.

The apex court said relief funds are different from secret funds as the later is not subject to audit, whereas, the relief funds are subjected to auditing.

"The Prime Minister/ Chief Minister is given the discretion to choose the recipient of the relief, the quantum of the relief, and the timing of grant of such relief. Unless, such discretion is given, in extraordinary circumstances not contemplated in the guidelines, the relief fund in the hands of the Chief Minister may be useless and meaningless."

"Where power is vested in holders of high office like the Chief Minister to give monetary relief from such a relief fund, it is no doubt a power coupled with duty. Nevertheless,
the authority will have the discretion to decide, where the Relief Fund Rules do not contain any specific guidelines, to whom relief should be extended, in what circumstances it
should be extended and what amount should be granted by way of relief," the bench said.

The bench said there was no statutory compulsion for awarding any fixed amount to the rape victim.

The amount of fine (on the guilty) may also vary depending upon the circumstances and in addition, the financial position of the victim and the offender, it said.

"Therefore, the inference that the monetary relief awarded under the relief fund should be identical for all victims of rape under the age of 12 years, is illogical and cannot be accepted," the apex court said.

The bench, however, said that as the relief fund is expected to be utilised for various purposes, it may not be proper or advisable to grant huge amounts in one or two cases,
thereby denying the benefit of the fund to other needy persons who are also the victims of catastrophes.

"The authority should be careful in exercising discretionary power so to ensure that it does not give room for nepotism, favouritism or discrimination."

The bench said disbursement or payment to undeserving cases can be questioned.

"But the mere fact that in two cases of rape involving extreme viciousness and depravity, high compensation has been granted having regard to the gravity of the offence and the
surrounding circumstances, is by itself not sufficient to interfere with the discretion of the Chief Minister," it added.


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