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FMA 440 of 2006

Decided On: 03.10.2018

Appellants: Surjit Singh and Ors.
Respondent: Union of India

Hon'ble Judges/Coram:
Dipankar Datta and Asha Arora


Dipankar Datta, J.

1. The daughter of the appellants (hereafter the victim) died on August 2, 1999 in a rail accident. Such accident occurred at about 1.55 a.m. as a result of a collision between the Brahmputra Mail and the Awadh Assam Express near Gaisal railway station in this State under the jurisdiction of the Northern Frontier Railway. The accident claimed the lives of several persons including the victim and her husband. The father-in-law of the victim had initially filed a claim application for compensation. It was dismissed on May 12, 2000 as not maintainable in view of section 123 of the Railways Act, 1989 (hereafter the 1989 Act). In terms thereof, the father-in-law of a deceased passenger is not entitled to be treated as "dependant" of the victim. It was thereafter that the appellants filed a claim application for compensation under Rule 5 of the Railway Claims Tribunal (Procedure) Rules, 1989 exercising the right to claim compensation conferred by section 125 of the 1989 Act read with section 16 of the Railway Claims Tribunal Act, 1987 (hereafter the 1987 Act). The tribunal considered the application and by its decision dated February 16, 2001, declined to grant compensation to the appellants on the ground of lack of evidence to prove that the appellants were dependant on the victim, either wholly or partly. It is this decision dated February 16, 2001 that is called in question in this appeal under section 23 of the 1987 Act.

2. Mr. Debnath, learned advocate appearing for the appellants has referred to section 123 of the 1989 Act and section 13 of the 1987 Act as well as a Division Bench decision of the Punjab and Haryana High Court reported in MANU/PH/0811/2008 : 2009 ACJ 1263 (Dhyan Singh and Anr. v. Union of India and Ors.) to contend that the word "dependant" in sub-clause (ii) of clause (b) of section 123 of the 1989 Act does not mean economic dependence only, but would also include dependence of love, affection, care and protection of the deceased passenger as well for his or her parents. He has, accordingly, prayed that the decision of the tribunal rejecting the application for compensation ought to be set aside and the appellants granted adequate compensation in terms of the Railway Accidents and Untoward Incidents (Compensation) Rules, 1990 (hereafter the 1990 Rules), as amended w.e.f. January 1, 2017, by following the decision of the Supreme Court reported in 2001 AIR SCW 1074 (Rathi Menon v. Union of India), since applied by a coordinate Bench of this Court in its decision reported in (2017) 3 WBLR (Cal) 557 (Smt. Radha Yadav v. Union of India).

3. None has appeared for the respondent to contest the appeal despite service; hence hearing of the appeal proceeded ex parte.

4. Mr. Debnath has been heard and the relevant statutory provisions as well as the decision in Dhyan Singh (supra) considered.

5. Section 123 of the 1989 Act, to the extent relevant for the present purpose, as well as section 125 thereof, is quoted below:

123. Definitions.--In this Chapter, unless the context otherwise requires,--

(a) "accident" means an accident of the nature described in Section 124;

(b) "dependant" means any of the following relatives of a deceased passenger, namely:-

(i) the wife, husband, son and daughter, and in case the deceased passenger is unmarried or is a minor, his parent;

(ii) the parent, minor brother or unmarried sister, widowed sister, widowed daughter-in-law and a minor child of a predeceased son, if dependant wholly or partly on the deceased passenger;

(iii) a minor child of a predeceased daughter, if wholly dependent on the deceased passenger;

(iv) the paternal grandparent wholly dependant on the deceased passenger.


125. Application for compensation.-- (1) An application for compensation under Section 124 or Section 124A may be made to the Claims Tribunal--

(a) by the person who has sustained the injury or suffered any loss, or

(b) by any agent duly authorised by such person in this behalf, or

(c) where such person is a minor, by his guardian, or

(d) where death has resulted from the accident, or the untoward incident, by any dependant of the deceased or where such a dependant is a minor, by his guardian.

(2) Every application by a dependant for compensation under this section shall be for the benefit of every other dependant.

6. It is a well-recognized rule of interpretation of statute that the Court's jurisdiction to interpret a statute can be invoked only when the same is ambiguous. The Court cannot enlarge the scope of legislation or intention when the language of the provision under consideration is plain and unambiguous. Though creases can be ironed out by the Court, it cannot change the nature of the fabric. Neither can the Court add to or subtract words of a statute or read something into it, which is not there, nor can it rewrite or recast the relevant legislation. In a case where the statutory provision is plain and ambiguous, the Court shall not interpret the same in a different manner, only because of harsh consequences arising therefrom. This is the law laid down by the Supreme Court in its decision reported in MANU/SC/0100/2003 : AIR 2003 SC 1543 (Nasiruddin v. Sita Ram Agarwal).

7. Similarly, it is well settled that while interpreting statutory provisions, the Court should consider each word, phrase, or sentence inasmuch as each of them has a meaning and purpose and none of them can be treated as redundant or useless. If any authority is required, one may usefully refer to the decision reported in MANU/SC/0933/2003 : (2004) 9 SCC 278 (State of Orissa v. Joginder Patjoshi).

8. Having considered the law laid down in two of the decisions rendered by the Supreme Court at the start of this century on the principles of interpretation of statutes, I need not multiply decisions on such point but wish to refer to only one more decision of the Supreme Court, authored by Hon'ble O. Chinappa Reddy, J. (as His Lordship then was), rendered about four decades back. I often seek guidance from such decision, reported in MANU/SC/0544/1986 : (1986) 2 SCC 237 (M/s. Girdhari Lal & Sons v. Balbir Nath Mathur. The relevant enlightening passage from such decision reads as under:

"6. It may be worthwhile to restate and explain at this stage certain well-known principles of interpretation of statutes: Words are but mere vehicles of thought. They are meant to express or convey one's thoughts. Generally, a person's words and thoughts are coincidental. No problem arises then, but, not infrequently, they are not. It is common experience with most men, that occasionally there are no adequate words to express some of their thoughts. Words which very nearly express the thoughts may be found but not words which will express precisely. There is then a great fumbling for words. Long-winded explanations and, in conversation, even gestures are resorted to. Ambiguous words and words which unwittingly convey more than one meaning are used. Where different interpretations are likely to be put on words and a question arises what an individual meant when he used certain words, he may be asked to explain himself and he may do so and say that he meant one thing and not the other. But if it is the legislature that has expressed itself by making the laws and difficulties arise in interpreting what the legislature has said, a legislature cannot be asked to sit to resolve those difficulties. The legislatures, unlike individuals, cannot come forward to explain themselves as often as difficulties of interpretation arise. So the task of interpreting the laws by finding out what the legislature meant is allotted to the courts. Now, if one person puts into words the thoughts of another (as the draftsman puts into words the thoughts of the legislature) and a third person (the court) is to find out what they meant, more difficulties are bound to crop up. The draftsman may not have caught the spirit of the legislation at all; the words used by him may not adequately convey what is meant to be conveyed; the words may be ambiguous: they may be words capable of being differently understood by different persons. How are the courts to set about the task of resolving difficulties of interpretation of the laws? The foremost task of a court, as we conceive it, in the interpretation of statutes, is to find out the intention of the legislature. Of course, where words are clear and unambiguous no question of construction may arise. Such words ordinarily speak for themselves. Since the words must have spoken as clearly to legislators as to judges, it may be safely presumed that the legislature intended what the words plainly say. This is the real basis of the so-called golden rule of construction that where the words of statutes are plain and unambiguous effect must be given to them. A court should give effect to plain words, not because there is any charm or magic in the plainness of such words but because plain words may be expected to convey plainly the intention of the legislature to others as well as judges. Intention of the legislature and not the words is paramount. Even where the words of statutes appear to be prima facie clear and unambiguous it may sometimes be possible that the plain meaning of the words does not convey and may even defeat the intention of the legislature; in such cases there is no reason why the true intention of the legislature, if it can be determined, clearly by other means, should not be given effect. Words are meant to serve and not to govern and we are not to add the tyranny of words to the other tyrannies of the world."

9. Bearing these long-standing principles in mind, the seminal question that arises for decision in this appeal is, whether reading and understanding of the word "dependant" in the manner it has been read and understood in Dhyan Singh (supra) should be followed. I must place on record that the decision in Dhyan Singh (supra) not being in existence when the tribunal rendered its impugned award, there could obviously be no argument advanced on behalf of the appellants referring to the same; therefore, whether the tribunal was justified in refusing relief to the appellants, would fall for decision depending upon the answer to the aforesaid question.

10. It requires to be noticed at this stage what has been laid down in Dhyan Singh (supra) while construing the word "dependant" in section 123 of the 1989 Act. The relevant passage reads as follows:

"12. *** The matter can be examined from another angle as well. Section 123(b) of the Railways Act defines 'dependant' to include minor brother if dependent partly or wholly on the deceased passenger. The word dependency is not restricted to economic dependence but dependence of love, affection, care and protection of deceased passenger as well. The word 'dependant' in clause (ii) of section 123(b) of the Railways Act is not to be given a restrictive meaning but contextual meaning keeping in view the objective of the statute so as to compensate unfortunate death of a passenger in railway accident. Such provision cannot be interpreted so as to benefit the tortfeasor which in the present case would be the Railways. Sub-section (ii) of section 123(b) of the Railways Act deals with dependency wholly or in part, therefore, the dependence of care and protection, love and affection by the deceased on their minor brother would be dependence within the meaning of the Act. It may be noticed that the parental grandparents can be said to be dependants only if they are wholly dependent on the deceased passenger. Such dependency is in contravention to even par dependency of a minor brother under clause (ii) of section 123(b) of the Railways Act. ***"

11. We now proceed to deal with the crucial point, i.e., whether the word 'dependant' in sub-clause (ii) of clause (b) of section 123 of the 1989 Act has to be read in a restrictive manner so as to mean economic dependence or an expansive meaning could be attributed to it, in the manner it has been understood in Dhyan Singh (supra). According to English grammar, the word dependant can be used as a noun as well as an adjective. It is found on perusal of Black's Legal Dictionary (Ninth Edition) [while explaining what 'dependent' (used as a 'noun') means], that a dependent is "one who relies on another for support; one not able to exist or sustain oneself without the power or aid of someone else". In the relevant provision, i.e., in sub-clause (ii), the word "dependant" is used as a noun. Going by the meaning in Black's Law Dictionary and the rule of literal interpretation, those included in the word 'dependant' would necessarily be required to show that he/she/they was or were dependant on the other for support; in other words, the person claiming to be the dependant would not be able to exist or sustain himself/herself without the aid of the other providing support. In order to succeed in a claim for compensation under the relevant statutory provisions, it has to be established by the claimant(s) that he/she/they was/were dependant, wholly or partly, on the deceased passenger as provided in sub-clause (ii) of section 123 of the 1989 Act, or in other words, dependent on the contributions of the deceased passenger for the provision of the ordinary necessities of life commensurate with his/her/their class and position in society. These are factors which tend to suggest that it is economic dependence that the legislators intended while inserting the word 'dependant' in sub-clause (ii) of section 123. If this is what the word 'dependant' means, no further discussion is required. But, I shall, for a moment, assume that it does not so suggest. Then, how does one correctly construe the word 'dependant'? Now, it is seen from sub-clause (ii) that the word 'dependant' is followed by certain other words, viz. "wholly or partly on the deceased passenger". These accompanying words, cannot under any circumstances, be ignored. It is here that the rule of noscitur a sociis, providing a test of construction of a single word would apply. The maxim means that where there is a string of words in an Act of Parliament, and the meaning of one of them is doubtful, that meaning is to be given to it which it shares with the other words. In its decision reported in MANU/SC/0408/1981 : (1981) 2 SCC 141 (Rainbow Steels Ltd. v. CST), the Supreme Court held that if wider words used are in themselves vague, imprecise or ambiguous and there is no indication that these have been deliberately used to infuse wider meaning then the rule of noscitur a sociis is applicable. While construing the word "old", it explained the rule that "all the associated words will take colour from each other". The meaning of the word 'dependant', therefore, has to take colour from the words which are used with it. If indeed the word 'dependant' includes within it emotional dependence, I wonder whether such dependence could be in part. Emotional dependence is either in the whole or not at all. Importantly, the words "or partly" are missing in sub-clauses (iii) and (iv) of section 123 of the 1989 Act. The intention of the legislature in omitting the words "or partly" in sub-clauses (iii) and (iv) appears to be significant for deciding the point argued by Mr. Debnath. In terms of sub-clause (iii), the grand-child of a deceased passenger, if the former is wholly dependant on the latter, can claim compensation. Similarly, in terms of sub-clause (iv), a paternal grandparent wholly dependant on his grandchild (read the deceased passenger) can claim compensation. The pre-condition in both cases covered by sub-clauses (iii) and (iv) is that the claimant should have been wholly dependant on the deceased passenger, and not partly. If indeed 'dependant' in sub-clause (ii) were intended to take within its fold emotional dependence, I am at a loss to comprehend why the legislature insisted that in cases covered by sub-clauses (iii) and (iv) the level of dependence should be 'wholly' and not 'partly'. I repeat that emotional dependence cannot be measured to be in part; either it is there or is not there. Having regard to the scheme of compensation envisaged in the relevant statutory provisions and the context in which the word 'dependant' appears in the statute (section 125 of the 1989 Act, and as defined in section 123 thereof), the conclusion seems to be inescapable that it signifies economic dependence and cannot be read in a manner to include emotional dependence.

12. That the appellants also understood the word "dependant" in the same sense I have understood is clear as crystal from the evidence of the appellant No. 1. He deposed that the victim was sending Rs. 700/- for their support out of her earning from stitching and tailoring work. In course of cross-examination, this is what the appellant No. 1 deposed:

"She had not been sending money to us regularly. She used to visit us thrice in a year in each visit she used to hand-over some money to us personally.

13. From the examination-in-chief, it does not at all appear to be the case of the appellant No. 1 that the claim application had been filed to compensate for the emotional loss caused to the appellants by the death of their daughter in the accident. As noticed above, no Court had read the word "dependant" to include emotional dependence prior to Dhyan Singh (supra) and, therefore, the question of adducing any evidence to that effect by the appellants did not arise.

14. At this stage, the decision of the Supreme Court while dealing with a motor accident claim application under the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 (hereafter the MV Act) may be noticed, reported in MANU/SC/0480/2013 : (2013) 9 SCC 54 (Rajesh and Ors. v. Rajbir Singh and Ors.). In such decision, the Court had awarded compensation of Rs. 1 lakh for loss of care and affection that the minor children could have had from their father, had the accident not claimed his life. The Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in its decision reported in MANU/SC/1366/2017 : (2017) 16 SCC 680 (National Insurance Company Limited v. Pranay Sethi and Ors.) has held Rajesh (supra) not to have laid down law having the effect of a binding precedent based on the reason that such head does not exist in the MV Act.

15. Having regard to all the decisions discussed above, I regret to be ad idem with the decision in Dhyan Singh (supra) that the word "dependant" in the 1989 Act should be given an enlarged meaning to include dependence of love, affection, care and protection of a deceased passenger as well.

16. There is otherwise no evidence of the appellants being economically dependant on the victim. Sending of some money, and that too not regularly, does not lead to the conclusion of the appellants being partly dependant on the victim for their survival.

17. It is unfortunate and pitiable that the appellants lost their daughter in the rail accident but on that score alone, the statutory provisions cannot be put aside or read in a strained manner to award compensation. I find no reason to interfere with the impugned award. Accordingly, the appeal stands dismissed. There shall be no order for costs.

Asha Arora, J.

I agree.

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