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Centre’s Delay in Releasing Relief Funds: SC Cautions Centre against Entering into “Contest”

Centre’s Delay in Releasing Relief Funds: SC Cautions Centre against Entering into “Contest”

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Manas Dasgupta

NEW DELHI, Apr 8: Expressing concern over the recent steady stream of complaints by the state governments against the Centre, the Supreme Court on Monday cautioned the Union Government against entering into a “contest” against the states.

Pointing out that several states in the recent days had been compelled to approach the apex court complaining against the Centre’s attitude, the court said “Let there be no contest here between the Union and the State… We are seeing various State governments having to appear in court,” while addressing the Attorney General R. Venkataramani and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, both appearing for the Union government.

The comment came when bench headed by Justice B.R. Gavai, and comprising Justice Sandeep Mehta was hearing a petition by the water-starved Karnataka government complaining against the Centre for delay in releasing the drought relief funds.

The court called both the sides to cooperate rather than compete. “Let there not be a contest between the union and states,” the court said. The petition claimed the centre had not extended financial assistance to the Karnataka government in view of a drought in multiple districts, and that it had been constrained to move the court since the failure to disburse funds had violated the fundamental rights of the people of the southern state.

Recently, the Tamil Nadu government had accused the Centre in the Supreme Court of treating the people of the State in a “step-motherly fashion” by delaying the release of disaster relief funds to the tune of nearly ₹38,000 crore to help tide over the twin calamities of cyclone Michaung and unprecedented floods in the State’s southern districts. Likewise, Kerala filed a first-of-its-kind suit directly in the apex court, blaming the Centre for arbitrarily interfering in its net borrowing limits, pushing the State to the brink of a financial emergency.

Karnataka said its request for financial relief from the Centre to tide over a “grave humanitarian crisis” had hit a wall. The State had sought ₹18,171.44 crore under the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) six months ago, only to be met with silence. The total estimated loss due to crop damage in the State is ₹35,162.05 crore, the petition said.

Karnataka state, represented by advocate D.L. Chidananda, said it was reeling under severe drought, affecting the lives of its people. “For the Kharif 2023 season (the season starts in June and ends in September), a total of 223 out of 236 taluks are declared as drought-affected, with 196 taluks categorised as severely affected and the remaining 27 categorised as moderately affected. Karnataka as a whole recorded -56% deficit rainfall in June, which was the third lowest in the last 122 years for the State,” the State said.

The State government had submitted three drought relief memoranda under various heads, including ₹4,663.12 crore towards crop loss input subsidy, ₹12,577.9 crore for gratuitous relief to families whose livelihood has been seriously affected due to drought, ₹566.78 crore for addressing shortage of drinking water relief, and ₹363.68 crore towards cattle care.

“The state is duty bound to affirmatively protect the fundamental rights of its people guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India… The action of the Central government in denying the financial assistance to the State is ex facie violative of the fundamental rights of the people of Karnataka guaranteed under Articles 14 (right to equality), 21 (right to life) of the Constitution,” the State of Karnataka said in its petition.

The State argued that the action of the Centre was violative of the statutory scheme of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, the Manual for Drought Management and the Guidelines on Constitution and Administration of the State Disaster Response Fund, and National Disaster Response Fund.

The State said the Centre, under the Manual for Drought Management, was required to take a final decision on NDRF assistance to a State within a month of the receipt of the Inter-Ministerial Central Team (IMCT). However, nothing has happened for the past six months.

Senior advocate Kapil Sibal pointed out the centre had been required to act on the report within a month of its submission. “Despite the IMCT report, which visited various drought-affected districts from October 4 till October 9, 2023, and made a comprehensive assessment of drought situation in the State and consideration of the report by the sub-committee of the National Executive Committee constituted under Section 9 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, Centre has not taken a final decision on the assistance to the State,” Mr Sibal said.

The court gave the two law officers of the Union government to take instructions and get back after two weeks.

In its response, the centre questioned the timing – with a Lok Sabha election in 11 days – and said the state ought to have approached the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government before the top court.

Centre vs states row have made headlines before the Lok Sabha election, particularly with southern states – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala – challenging the centre over disbursal of funds and devolution of taxes. The Karnataka petition came days after Tamil Nadu sought an ex-parte order to the centre to release ₹ 2,000 crore as part of an interim relief package for flood-ravaged districts.

The fight over the release of funds to the southern states – whether for disaster relief or as part of dues from tax devolution – also made its way to the Parliament in February, where Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and the Congress’ Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury sparred over the allegations that non-BJP state governments were being “deprived of (financial) dues” and allocations.




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