The court described as "totally insensitive" and "callous" the approach of the statutory authorities in equating women, who are homemakers, with such segments, saying it was indicative of a strong gender bias against women.
The court suggested that time has come for Parliament to revisit the Motor Vehicle Act to ensure that whenever a housewife dies, suitable compensation is awarded to the family members, to avoid gender bias. In separate but concurrent judgements, the Bench also suggested amendments to the Matrimonial Laws to give the women their due status in the society.
"This bias is shockingly prevalent in the work of Census. In the Census of 2001 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.
"As a result of such categorization about 36 crores (367 million) women in India have been classified in the Census of India, 2001 as non-workers and placed in the category of beggars, prostitutes and prisoners," the apex court observed.
A Bench of Justices G S Singhvi and A K Ganguly upheld the appeal of an aggrieved husband Arun Kumar Aggarwal challenging the meagre compensation awarded by the Motor Accidents Tribunal and the Allahabad High Court, for the death of his wife Renu in a road accident.
Though under the Motor Vehicles Act's structured formula, the family was entitled to a compensation of Rs six lakh, the Tribunal reduced the compensation to just Rs 2.5 lakh on the ground that Renu was only a housewife and hence the "loss of dependency" did not deserve such a high amount.
The Tribunal passed the order despite the plea of the husband that his wife was engaged in partime painting and earning Rs 50,000 per month and the family had suffered immense loss of emotional support, love and affection of the deceased. The High Court concurred with the Tribunal's findings, upon which the husband appealed in the apex court.
Disagreeing with the two courts' view, the Bench said, "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 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,"the apex court said.
The apex court directed the National Insurance Company to pay Rs six lakh compensation to Agarwal's family with 6 per cent interest. The insurance company will also have pay Agarwal additionally Rs.50,000 towards legal costs.
A housekeeper or maidservant can also do the household work, but they can never be a substitute for a wife/mother who renders selfless service to her husband and children, the Bench noted.
"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 Bench said.
The court pointed out that 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, 1/3 rd income of the earning/surviving spouse for the purpose of computing the compensation. It regretted that in many cases the Delhi High Court had equated the services rendered by a housewife to that of a skilled worker for the purpose of awarding compensation.
"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," the apex court observed. The apex court said the contribution of housewives to the productivity of the society would be huge if the same was to be measured in terms of monetary value.
"We often forget that the time spent by women in doing household work as homemakers is the time which they can devote to paid work or to their education. This lack of sensitiveness and recognition of their work mainly contributes to women's high rate of poverty and their consequential oppression in society, as well as various physical, social and psychological problems," the judges observed.
The Bench said courts and tribunals should do well to factor these considerations in assessing compensation for housewives who are victims of road accidents to ensure that it was just.
"Time has come for the Parliament to have a rethinking for properly assessing the value of homemakers and householders work and suitably amending the provisions of Motor Vehicles Act and other related laws for giving compensation when the victim is a woman and a homemaker.
"Amendments in matrimonial laws may also be made in order to give effect to the mandate of Article 15(1) (prohibits gender discriminationr) in the Constitution," Justice Ganguly said. PTI
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