Reading time: 8-10 minutes.
Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of.
~ Stephen Hawking
The people of India are going through a complete lockdown for 21 days started on 24th March 2020, in bid to stop the spread of coronavirus, that has claimed over 11,00,000 lives across the world so far and has been declared a global pandemic in nature by the World Health Organization (WHO). This lockdown has brought everything to halt in India except the essential services.
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose and no vaccination has been invented yet and thus, the most effective solution to control the spread is social distancing, as it is communicable and the symptoms may take around two weeks before they are clearly visible. Given the large demography of India, it was only wise to put a lockdown in the early stage of the pandemic.
The Union Home Ministry said that in an order under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 to declare 21 days countrywide lockdown to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 pandemic. Directions are issued that district and state orders should be effectively sealed. The states are directed to ensure there is no movement of people across cities or on highways. Only the movement of goods should be allowed and that, district magistrates and police superintendents would be personally responsible for the implementation of these directions.
Also, all offices of the Government of India and State Governments, and their autonomous bodies and corporations shall remain closed, except those dealing in defense, treasury, public utilities (including petroleum, CNG, LPG), disaster management, power generation, post office, national informatics center, water, sanitation, police, home guards, prisons, etc. Hospitals, medical establishments, clinics, dispensaries, laborites, and allied services will also remain functional.
There is no country that is totally impervious from any catastrophe. However, the magnitude of such catastrophes may vary. Therefore, various nations take measures to prevent a disaster and also to recuperate if such a disaster occurs. Disaster management can be referred to as the planning, organizing, and management of the resources in order to curb the calamity and lessen the impact of the disaster by responsibly acting on it.
Therefore, the need for management of disaster was realized by the State and The Disaster Management Act was enacted by the Parliament in the Fifty-sixth Year of the Republic of India on 26th December 2005. It was enacted as the central Act to deal with disaster management. Principally it provides for the effective management of disasters and for matters connected therewith or incidents thereto. This act foresees three categories of Disaster Management structure in India at National, States and District levels.
Significance of this development
As this disease is a contagious disease the major steps to be taken to curb the effect of it is to stop the infection and for that, it is advised by the WHO that ‘social distancing’ shall be maintained which will, in turn, lead to decrease the spread through sneezing or coughing. Social distancing here means that two persons must maintain a distance of at least 3 meters between them so that the infection does not spread.
In lieu of the guidelines of the World Health Organisation, the Government of India has imposed a nationwide lockdown and it also passed an order to seal the state and district borders to stop the exodus of migrant workers. This was an important step as the coronavirus has been deemed to be a pandemic and the cases in the country crossed the 5000 mark.
These steps were taken by the Central Government in conformation to the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005. Section 35 of the Act states that the Central Government shall take all such measures as it deems necessary for the purpose of disaster management. It also states that the Centre must ensure that the state governments are also working towards the same goal.
Salient features of the DM Act
The Disaster Management Act was enacted in India on 26th December 2005 by an act of Parliament. The Act was enacted to provide for the potent management of disasters or matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.
The following are the features of the Disaster Management Act, 2005:-
- Disaster Management Act, 2005 comprises 79 sections and 11 chapters.
- The Act covers all aspects of disaster management i.e., planning, avoidance, mitigation, response, and resurgence.
- This Act was the first statute that defined the term ‘disaster’ and ‘disaster management’ in its whole sense under Section 2(d) and Section 2(e) respectively.
- It provides an institutional structure for monitoring and implementation of policy for which the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) was established.
- All the roles and responsibilities at all levels of government, starting from the Central Government right up to Panchayat and Urban Local body level is the matrix format.
- The Act follows the regional approach; therefore, it will be beneficial not only for disaster management but also for developmental planning.
- NDMA and SDMA perform their function to prepare for the disaster and lessen the menace at their respective levels.
- District Disaster Management Authority is also established under this Act to work effectively at the district level.
- As per the provisions of this Act, financial mechanisms like Disaster Response Fund and Disaster Mitigation Fund shall be created at the national, state and district level to reduce the severity of the loss incurred due to the catastrophe.
- The developer of this Act also emphasized preparing communities to cope with disasters, so it also stresses on a greater need for information, education and communication activities.
- It also focuses on vital affairs such as early warning, information dissemination, medical care, fuel, transportation, research and rescue, evacuation, etc. to examine, whether the agencies are active.
- The provisions of this Act also prescribe the penalties to be imposed on any person in case of an offense (as provided in the statute) being committed by him.
The abovementioned features of the Act make it an exemplary statute that helps in the prevention of the disaster by readily preparing for it beforehand and also in successfully recovering from a disaster. The Act ensures that necessary steps are taken by various factions of the government for the prevention and reduction of disasters.
Its relevance W.R.T. COVID-19
On 24th March 2020, The Ministry of Home Affairs invoked Section 6(2)(i) of the Disaster Management Act and directed the ministries or departments of the Government of India, state and union territory governments and authorities to implement the measures laid down in the central order. Section 10 of NDMA authorizes the central authority to issue guidelines and directions to several state government with respect to addressing disasters.
Section 10(2)(1) of the Act allows the National Executive Committee to give directions to governments regarding measures to be taken by them. The Union home secretary, who is the chairman of the National Executive Committee, delegated power to the Union health secretary in this regard.
The offenses and penalties are provided in Section 51 to Section 60 of the Act.
Under the provisions of this Act, any person who refuses to comply with the directions of the Central Government shall be liable to imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine, or with both, according to Section 51 of the Act.
According to Section 53 of the Act, whoever misappropriates or appropriates for his own use the money or materials provided for disaster relief, shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to a term of two years or with fine, or with both.
According to Section 54 of the Act, any person who makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to a panic shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or fine, or with both.
Earlier in March, the ‘misgiving’ of information on ‘chicken as a carrier of Coronavirus’ on social media, cost the poultry industry an estimated loss of Rs 1.6 billion per day, according to the reports of the All India Poultry Breeders’ Association. Despite the clarification by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), not only did the culling of chicken continue but also played havoc in the lives of chicken breeders, traders and allied sectors.
Recently a PIL was been filed by Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla IAS in a similar regard that deliberate fake news can cause panic in the society. Therefore, the Centre said that the creation of panic is an offense under the Act and an ‘appropriate direction from the top court would “protect the country from any potential and inevitable consequence resulting from a false alarm having the potential of creating panic in a section of the society’.
The central government has sought a direction from the Supreme Court that no media outlet should print, publish or telecast anything on COVID -19 without first ascertaining facts from the mechanism provided by the government. But if a person or channel does so then they’ll be charged under Section 67 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 which states the direction to media for communication of warnings, etc.
These are the major provisions of the Act which came into effect after the lockdown was imposed in the country. Many other provisions were also in effect which were deemed to be necessary for the containment of the corona virus disease.
The Disaster Management Act, 2005 has thus played an important role in a fight with the highly contagious novel COVID-19 or commonly known as coronavirus. It was passed to enable the central government to provide a legal framework for setting up a National Disaster Management Authority under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister of India.
While the tactic of the Act does not specifically allocate the control of a pandemic like COVID-19, the powers of the NDMA under Section 6 of the Act can broadly be expounded to give a unified command to the central government to effectively manage a disaster throughout India by making it mandatory for the government to take all such necessary measures which will help curb the disease.
Under the DMA, 2005, the COVID-19 outbreak is needed to be listed as a disaster, allowing broad powers of the central government to deal with the pandemic by setting policies, strategies and guidelines for disaster management to ensure timely and efficient response. Section 38 of the DMA imposes on the states the obligation to obey NDMA’s directions.
To conclude, whenever there is a catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, an emergent measure such as Disaster Management Act in the current situation, needs to be taken for the interest of a larger public even at the cost of some inconvenience.
Authors: Dhanesh Desai from Amity Law School, Noida and Pragya Narang from The Northcap University,Gurugram.
Editor: Arya Mittal from Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur.