THE INDIA’S EPIDEMIC DISEASE ACT, 1897 – SUFFICIENT TO TACKLE THE PANDEMIC OR HEALTH EMERGENCIES BY SHRIYA SEHGAL

INTRODUCTION

The threatening COVID-19 and unpreparedness for the same have revealed imperfections in India’s health legislation. With the onset of a global pandemic caused by the coronavirus, there has been a nationwide lockdown from March 2020.

Many Indian states referred to the 123-year-old legislation, that is, India’s Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 to control and stop the spread of the coronavirus in their respective territories.

This Act is further coupled with the Essential Commodities Act, 1995 and the Disaster Management Act, 2005. However, for this article, we will focus on the India Epidemic Disease Act, 1897.

CHRONICLES OF THE ACT

The Epidemic Disease Act was enacted in the year 1897 when Bombay (now Mumbai) was facing the bubonic plague. The plague began in September in the year 1896 and soon started spreading to the subcontinent.

On January 19, 1896,[1] Queen Victoria delivered a speech in the parliament to introduce stricter measures for tackling and eradicating the plague from the root. Consequently, the Epidemic Disease Bill was introduced with extraordinary powers to the executive.

KEY PROVISIONS

The two-page long legislation consists of four sections which extend to the whole of India for prevention of dangerous epidemic diseases.

Section 2 deals with the power of the State and the Central Government to take special measures and prescribe regulations concerning dangerous epidemic diseases.[2]

  • Firstly, if the State Government finds that the state or any part of the state is threatened with the outbreak of dangerous epidemic disease and the law in force is insufficient for the same then it can articulate temporary measures. These regulations need to be observed by the public or a class of persons to curb the further spreading of the disease. The notice can be given by public notice.
  • Moreover, the State Government has the power to inspect the persons travelling by railways or any other mode of transportation. On identifying the infected persons, the inspecting officer shall make arrangements for them in separate wards of the hospital.
  • Lastly, if the Central Government finds that India or any part of India is threatened with the outbreak of dangerous epidemic disease and the law in force is insufficient for the same then it can articulate temporary measures including inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port of the country. If such ship or vessel is found to be a potential threat then the same can be detained.

Section 3 deals with the penalty of any person disobeying the temporary regulations made by any Government under this Act.[3] Such a person shall be punished under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

Section 4 deals with the protection to persons acting under this Act, that is, no legal proceedings can be carried against a person who is acting in good faith under this Act.[4]

APPLICATION OF THE LAW

The Act has been used in India to control the dissemination of diseases during the past years, such as:

  • 2009: To deal with swine flu in Pune.
  • 2015: To deal with dengue and malaria in Chandigarh.
  • 2018: To deal with cholera in Gujrat.
  • 2020: To deal with COVID-19 pandemic in India.[5]
RELEVANCE IN THE PRESENT WORLD

In India, all states and union territories invoked Section 2 of the Act in response to the widespread coronavirus. There has been a nationwide lockdown since March 22, 2020. The following is a list of do’s and don’ts’:

Restrictions exempted:

  1. Essential services such as health workers, doctors, nurses, sanitation staff, etc. are exempted from restrictions.
  2. Print and electronic media persons are exempted from lockdown provided they do not enter the hotspots.
  3. Special homes such as homes of children, senior citizens, disabled, mentally challenged, disabled are permitted to stay open.
  4. All security personnel such as police and security forces are also exempted from the lockdown.
  5. All essential service agencies such as cook gas, ration shops, wholesale and retail shops and vegetable mandis to remain open.
  6. Pathology labs will remain operational and other private labs to also conduct tests for COVID-19.
  7. Internet and telecommunication services will also remain open.

Restricted Areas: –

  1. Domestic and international flights for the general public, passenger trains, bus transport, and metro rail services will remain closed.
  2. Social, political, sports, cultural, entertainment and religious gatherings are forbidden.
  3. Taxis, auto-rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, and cab services will be non-operational.
  4. All education institutes will remain closed until further notice.[6]
 DOWNSIDE OF THE ACT

This Act is colonial era legislation which requires amendments to make it more suitable for fighting with contemporary problems. The following are the drawbacks of the given Act:

  • The Act makes the State Government more powerful than the Central Government, thus weakening the federal structure of the democracy.
  • The Act is silent about the rights of the health workers including senior doctors, nurses or anybody acting in their capacity for the welfare of the patients. The Indian health laws lack in providing protection and life insurance to the health workers as there are no written laws.
  • For fighting pandemic, there are no laws for the observation of the suspect or vaccination, if available. Moreover, the privacy rights of the patient are not mentioned in any statute.
  • The role of the civil society is neglected as there is no mention of any rights and duties of the citizens during the rough times of widespread pandemic.

Thus, the Act carries a “colonial baggage” and was drafted in a particular context.[7]

READINESS FOR FUTURE HEALTH EMERGENCIES

The Epidemic Diseases Act is 123 years old colonial-era legislation which keeps on discovering pertinence in the flare-up of the current ailments to control the further expansion of pandemic infections, for example, swine flu, dengue, malaria and so forth. This Act has essentially supported the Governments at all the levels to battle against the coronavirus. All the warnings given by the Health Ministry and the State Governments are enforceable under Section 2 of this Act. Thus, it is said that the law in force need not be amended, provided the Government is satisfied with the implementation of the same to control the dissemination of the disease.

The strategy for battling any pandemics, later on, will have a legitimate exercise gained from COVID-19. The legislatures will consider amending the Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 and search for an increasingly complete and refreshed law while managing wellbeing crises. Moreover, there is a need for an integrated law to ensure transparency. Thus, if no such effort is made for a comprehensive plan then India may face a serious setback in the future.

THE EPIDEMIC DISEASES (AMENDMENT) ORDINANCE, 2020

The Central Government took cognizance of the attacks on the doctors and healthcare workers and propagated an Ordinance to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 on April 22, 2020. It says that the attack on above-mentioned people is a cognizable and non-bailable offence. One who commits or aids in committing such a violent act shall be punished with imprisonment ranging from 3 months to 5 years, and a penalty ranging from 50,000 rupees to 5 Lakhs. However, the punishment can be increased in case of serious attacks. Moreover, in case of damage to vehicles or clinics of the doctors or healthcare workers, the wrongdoers are liable to pay double the market cost of the damaged asset as compensation.

The Ordinance also states that the investigation of the incident shall be completed within 30 days by the senior inspector and the court proceedings hall be conducted timely to decide the case within the year. Moreover, the burden of proof lies on the defendant.[8]

OTHER RELATED LAWS

The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 is being implemented throughout the nation along with other legislation such as:

  • THE ESSENTIAL COMMODITIES ACT, 1955

This Act applies to the whole of India for controlling the production, supply and distribution of certain commodities. Under this Act, a commodity is considered to be essential only it is explicitly specified under the Schedule of this Act. However, the Schedule is not stringent and can be amended by the Central Government to tackle the contemporary situation and for the welfare of the public. Such amendment needs to be published via a notification in the Official Gazette along with the reasons for the same.

Under Section 3 of this Act, the Central Government has the power to regulate the supplies of the essential commodities, make the commodities available at minimum and fair price, and ensure equitable distribution of the same. In case of violation of this Section, the person can face a penalty in the form of imprisonment or fine.[9]

In the current pandemic situation, a hike in the demand of face masks, gloves and alcohol-based hand sanitisers were observed. There were multiple cases of black marketing, hoarding, and availability and sale of substandard face masks etc. the producers, distributers and sellers of such commodities took undue advantage of the customers in need. Consequently, the Essential Commodities Act was for the regulation of supply of these commodities invoked by the Central Government.

  • THE DISASTER MANAGEMENT ACT, 2005

This Act applies to the whole of India for the effective management of disasters and connected matters. There is a National Executive Committee which is headed by the home secretary whose powers are described under Section 10 of the Disaster Management Act but at the same time, these powers have been delegated to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.[10] This Committee is primarily responsible for assessing the readiness at all government levels to battle any fiasco or hostile disaster situation. In case of any deficiency or insufficiency, it can direct to improve the readiness to battle any calamity or hostile disaster situation.

In the current pandemic situation, this Act has a dual purpose. Firstly, exhaustive administration for disaster readiness or preparedness and secondly, price regulation of alcohol-based hand sanitisers, face masks and gloves. The above-mentioned items have been declared as drugs by the Ministry of Health and Family Affairs and as a result, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) has the right to regulate their supply and prices. This change in the provision has controlled black marketing, overpricing and hoarding to a great extent. Most importantly, the Central Government has notified a lockdown by a passing an order exercising powers vested with them under section 6(2)(i) of this Act.[11] Moreover, Section 60 of this Act provides for offences committed under this Act. Such a complaint shall either be filed by the National or State Disaster Management Authority or a notice of at least 30 days shall be given to the above-mentioned authorities. However, the punishments provided under this Act are not frequently used as they cause a delay in the decision making during the tough time of disasters or epidemics.[12]

  • INDIAN PENAL CODE, 1860

The lockdown imposed by the government is different from the curfew because the authorities such as the police cannot arrest anyone without taking the due permission from the court. The lockdown is being guided by the provisions of the Indian Penal Code such as:

  1. Section 188 deals with disobedience to order duly propagated by the public servant. In cases where such disobedience causes danger to human life or health, the punishment is simple imprisonment extending to six months or fine extending to 1000 rupees.[13] Section 3, that is, the penalty clause of the Epidemic Disease Act also directs that punishment shall be given under Section 188 in case of violation of its provisions.
  2. Section 269 deals with negligent act probable to disseminate infection of disease dangerous to life. Such a person can be punished with simple imprisonment extending to six months or fine or both.
  • Section 270 deals with evil act probable to disseminate infection of disease dangerous to life. Such a person can be punished with imprisonment extending to 2 years or fine or both. The difference between Section 269 and 270 is that the latter must be done with an evil motive or with prior knowledge of the harm.[14]
  1. Section 271 deals with defiance to quarantine rule. If a person escapes from the quarantine imposed upon him by the public health authorities then he can be punished with 6 months of imprisonment or fine or both.[15]
CONCLUSION

It can be noted that the entire world is going through a tough time and every country is trying to curb the widespread disease in their way and following their healthcare policies. India, with the second-largest population dependent on colonial-era legislation, however, did not hesitate in making amends. The government at all levels along with other authorities is trying to promote healthy habits, social distancing, providing meals to the need and much more. Its time for the citizens to join hands and support the nation in every possible way whether economically or socially. Tough times require tough measures and the nation is well equipped to tackle such problems.

Thus it is far beyond doubt that this colonial greyed epidemic act needs a total correction to take into account the changing public health priorities and we ought to assume that the Indian Government will make strides in managing the spread of pandemics and will deliver a complete enactment which will contemplate the  edgy real factors and control measures for the spread of different infections in future.

The legislators can draw a leaf out of the National Disaster Management Act,2005 (deals with public emergency) as it clearly defines all the terms and has an explicit description of all the implementing measures and offices to be founded in case of any crisis.

 

[1] Kiran Kumbhar, Epidemic Diseases Act, India’s 123-Year-Old Law to Help Fight the Pandemic, THE WIRE SCIENCE (May 08, 2020, 08:04 PM), https://thewire.in/health/epidemic-diseases-act-india-pandemic.

[2] The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897, No. 3, Acts of Parliament, 1897 (India).

[3] The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897, No. 3, Acts of Parliament, 1897 (India).

[4] The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897, No. 3, Acts of Parliament, 1897 (India).

[5] Manvi Kapur, A 123-year old law, once used to imprison freedom fighters, is India’s primary weapon against coronavirus, QUARTZ INDIA (May 09, 2020, 3:38 PM), https://qz.com/india/1820143/india-battles-coronavirus-with-british-era-epidemic-diseases-act/.

[6] Business Today, Coronavirus lockdown 2.0 guidelines issued: Check full list of relaxation, restrictions by MHA, BUSINESS TODAY, (May 10, 2020, 5:38 PM ) https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/new-coronavirus-lockdown-guidelines-issued-check-full-list-of-relaxations-lockdown-rules-by-mha/story/401030.html.

[7]Saurav Kumar Rai, How the Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 Came to Be, THE WIRE SCIENCE (May 08, 2020, 08:10 PM), https://thewire.in/health/epidemic-diseases-act-india-pandemic.

[8] Bar & Bench, Read The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 promulgated to punish those attacking healthcare workers, BAR & BENCH (May 10, 2020, 5:45 PM ) https://www.barandbench.com/news/read-the-epidemic-diseases-amendment-ordinance-2020-promulgated-to-punish-those-attacking-healthcare-workers.

[9] The Essential Commodities Act, 1995, No. 10, Acts of Parliament, 1995 (India).

[10] The Disaster Management Act, 2005, Acts of Parliament, 2005 (India).

[11] The Disaster Management Act, 2005, Acts of Parliament, 2005 (India).

[12] The Disaster Management Act, 2005, Acts of Parliament, 2005 (India).

[13] The Indian Penal Code, 1860, No. 45 Acts of Parliament, 1860 (India).

[14] Devanshu Anada, is the Indian Legal Framework Capable of Handling the Coronavirus Pandemic?, iPLEADERS  (May 10, 2020, 5:55 PM ) https://blog.ipleaders.in/indian-legal-framework-capable-handling-coronavirus-pandemic/.

[15] The Indian Penal Code, 1860, No. 45 Acts of Parliament, 1860 (India).

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