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Heart ailment not "disability" under 1995 or 2016 laws: Supreme Court rejects plea by seaman for disability compensation

Heart ailment not "disability" under 1995 or 2016 laws: Supreme Court rejects plea by seaman for disability compensation
Debayan Roy 10 Feb, 2021

The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a plea by a former seaman who claimed disability compensation on account of a heart ailment (Nawal Kishore vs Union of India).

A three-judge Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Dinesh Maheshwari and Hrishikesh Roy upheld a judgment of the Patna High Court in this regard.

The Court was deciding the plea of a person who was found suffering from ‘Dilated Cardiomyopathy’ and was declared permanently unfit for sea service.

The question before the Court was whether petitioner was entitled to the benefit of disability compensation under clause 21 of the National Maritime Board (NMB) Agreement.

The work of the petitioner included engine cleaning, plate cleaning, filing of chemicals and acid in pipelines etc. which are hazardous to health.

The petitioner had complained of pain in the abdomen, swelling in right leg and difficulty in breathing for which he was sent ashore at Mumbai for treatment.

He was then diagnosed to be suffering from heart ailment. The petitioner also suffered from other ailments which included depression, 46% hearing loss and 40% vision loss.

He then claimed ‘Disability Compensation’ under Clause 21 of NMB Agreement dated, but was awarded ‘Severance Compensation’ as provided Clause 25 of NMB Agreement which he refused to accept.

The High Court judgment under challenge had opined that petitioner was medically unfit for sea service though he is medically not unfit for other service.

The High Court found that the petitioner got inflicted by ‘Dilated Cardiomyopathy’ while in employment which is an occupational disease for seafarers.

The petitioner had submitted that ‘Dilated Cardiomyopathy’ is nothing but an internal injury to heart by which it cannot pump blood effectively due to enlargement.

It was his argument that the internal injury in this case was due to stressful working condition of the seafarer.

The Supreme Court after considering the rival submissions ruled that impaired heart function cannot reasonably be attributed to his nine month engagement at sea. Although the seaman commenced his engagement with a fitness certificate, it would be unreasonable, in our view, to relate the medical condition of the appellant as having causal connection with his sea voyage engagement, the Court said.

The question, the Court said, is whether the term “injury”, should be construed in the manner suggested by the appellant’s counsel as anything which diminishes the health status of a seaman.

"Such broad interpretation in the context of the specific expression in the agreement would in our view,efface the intent of the agreement between the parties. Merely because of the beneficial objective, the clear expression in the agreement must not be ignored to give another meaning which could not have been the intention or the understanding, of the contracting parties," the Court concluded.

The appellant had also argued that heart ailment should be understood as a disability under the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 (Disability Act) and consequential benefits should be accorded to him.

The Court, however, observed that Section 2(i) of the Disability Act takes into account visual disability, locomotor disability, mental illness,mental retardation, hearing impairment and leprosy.

"Heart ailment is not covered within the definition of disability in the Act and we would hesitate to import words, which the legislature chose not to, in their definition of disability," the Court made it clear.

The Disability Act of 1995 was replaced by the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 but the new Act also does not cover heart ailment as a disability, the Court stated.

"Dilated Cardiomyopathy condition of the appellant is neither a specified disability nor is the same relatable to the broad spectrum of impairments, which hinders full and effective participation in society," the judgment concluded.

The Supreme Court, thus, ruled that Diluted Cardiomyopathy condition of the appellant does not bring his case within the ambit of either the 1995 Act or of the 2016 Act.

"The High Court, therefore, was correct in concluding that Dilated Cardiomyopathy condition would not facilitate any benefit to the appellant under the Disability Act," it was held.

Senior Counsel V Chitambaresh represented the petitioner. Advocate Shiv Kumar Suri represented the Shipping Corporation of India while Additional Solicitor General Vikramjit Banerjee appeared for the Central government.