26 Oct 2010

Due compensation on death of housewife: Supreme Court

Dealing with the question as to "what should be the criteria for determination of the compensation payable to the dependents of a woman who dies in a road accident and who does not have regular source of income", the Supreme Court in a recently reported decision has declared that the award of compensation to be made upon death of a housewife should not be looked only from the view point of how much monetary earning she carried. According to the Court sufficient account was to be had over the non-monetized value of assistance and contribution made by a housewife to the family household.

Two judges of the Supreme Court writing separate but concurring decisions frowned upon the practice of Census authorities collecting data on classification of population by workers and non-workers and therein classifying "spouses who does not earn, which is normally the woman in the house and the homemaker ... as non-workers and placed in the category of beggars, prostitutes and prisoners". This classification was adopted for the purpose of determining the liability of the insurer in accident cases under Motor Vehicle Insurance law. The Court was taken aback to note that such "bias is shockingly prevalent in the work of Census" where "it appears that those who are doing household duties like cooking, cleaning of utensils, looking after children, fetching water, collecting firewood have been categorized as non-workers and equated with beggars, prostitutes and prisoners who, according to Census, are not engaged in economically productive work". 

Certain observations made by the Court, in as much as they symbolize its concern for housewives are noted as under;

Justice G.S. Singhvi
19. We may now deal with the question formulated in the opening paragraph of this judgment. In Kemp and Kemp on Quantum of Damages, (Special Edition – 1986), the authors have identified various heads under which the husband can claim compensation on the death of his wife. These include loss of the wife's contribution to the household from her earnings, the additional expenses incurred or likely to be incurred by having the household run by a house-keeper or servant, instead of the wife, the expenses incurred in buying clothes for the children instead of having them made by the wife, and similarly having his own clothes mended or stitched elsewhere than by his wife, and the loss of that element of security provided to the husband where his employment was insecure or his health was bad and where the wife could go out and work for a living.
 23. In India the Courts have recognised that the contribution made by the wife to the house is invaluable and cannot be computed in terms of money. The gratuitous services rendered by wife with true love and affection to the children and her husband and managing the household affairs cannot be equated with the services rendered by others. A wife/mother does not work by the clock. She is in the constant attendance of the family throughout the day and night unless she is employed and is required to attend the employer’s work for particular hours. She takes care of all the requirements of husband and children including cooking of food, washing of clothes, etc. She teaches small children and provides invaluable guidance to them for their future life. A housekeeper or maidservant can do the household work, such as cooking food, washing clothes and utensils, keeping the house clean etc., but she can never be a substitute for a wife/mother who renders selfless service to her husband and children.
24. It is not possible to quantify any amount in lieu of the services rendered by the wife/mother to the family i.e. husband and children. However, for the purpose of award of compensation to the dependents, some pecuniary estimate has to be made of the services of housewife/mother. In that context, the term ‘services’ is required to be given a broad meaning and must be construed by taking into account the loss of personal care and attention given by the deceased to her children as a mother and to her husband as a wife. They are entitled to adequate compensation in lieu of the loss of gratuitous services rendered by the deceased. The amount payable to the dependants cannot be diminished on the ground that some close relation like a grandmother may volunteer to render some of the services to the family which the deceased was giving earlier.
32. In our view, it is highly unfair, unjust and inappropriate to compute the compensation payable to the dependents of a deceased wife/mother, who does not have regular income, by comparing her services with that of a housekeeper or a servant or an employee, who works for a fixed period. The gratuitous services rendered by wife/mother to the husband and children cannot be equated with the services of an employee and no evidence or data can possibly be produced for estimating the value of such services. It is virtually impossible to measure in terms of money the loss of personal care and attention suffered by the husband and children on the demise of the housewife. In its wisdom, the legislature had, as early as in 1994, fixed the notional income of a non-earning person at Rs.15,000/- per annum and in case of a spouse, 1/3rd income of the earning/surviving spouse for the purpose of computing the compensation. Though, Section 163A does not, in terms apply to the cases in which claim for compensation is filed under Section 166 of the Act, in the absence of any other definite criteria for determination of compensation payable to the dependents of a non-earning housewife/mother, it would be reasonable to rely upon the criteria specified in clause (6) of the Second Schedule and then apply appropriate multiplier keeping in view the judgments of this Court in General Manager Kerala State Road Transport Corporation v. Susamma Thomas (Mrs.) and others (supra), U.P. S.R.T.C. v. Trilok Chandra (supra), Sarla Verma (Smt.) and others v. Delhi Transport Corporation and another (supra) and also take guidance from the judgment in Lata Wadhwa’s case. The approach adopted by different Benches of Delhi High Court to compute the compensation by relying upon the minimum wages payable to a skilled worker does not commend our approval because it is most unrealistic to compare the gratuitous services of the housewife/mother with work of a skilled worker.
Justice A.K. Ganguly
8. It is thus clear that in independent India also the process of categorizing is dominated by concepts which were prevalent in colonial India and no attempt has been made to restructure those categories with a gender sensitivity which is the hallmark in our Constitution.
9.Work is very vital to the system of gender reconstruction in societies and in this context masculine and feminine work is clearly demarcated. The question which obviously arises is whether Census definition of work reflects the underlying process of gender discrimination.
10.Women are generally engaged in home making, bringing up children and also in production of goods and services which are not sold in the market but are consumed at the household level. Thus, the work of women mostly goes unrecognized and they are never valued.
11.Therefore, in the categorization by the Census what is ignored is the well known fact that women make significant contribution at various levels including agricultural production by sowing, harvesting, transplanting and also tending cattles and by cooking and delivering the food to those persons who are on the field during the agriculture season.

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