Overhauling of Epidemic Disease Act, 1897: In the Context of COVID 19

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Recently, various states in India have invoked legislation to curb this menace caused by a novel coronavirus. In this context, this article aims to review the legislation and its significance in the current scenario. It seems that the Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 is an archaic legislation as it came into existence 123 years ago. With the change in era, it is ignoramus of us to still be dependent on this Act. During this crucial crisis, a need is felt for consolidated, holistic, and significant legal provisions to curb the outbreak in India.

This article endeavours to provide the description, specific features or elements, historical outlook, limitations, and the amendments made under the said Act by our Government to tackle the current situation. It also aims to analyse each section of the Act invoked, which is significant for recommendations or any alterations in this discipline.

Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897

As per the advice of the Health Ministry, in March, the Union Government has invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. This Act came into force on 4th February 1897 when a Bubonic Plague had been discovered in Mandavi (then a part of Bombay, but now in Gujarat) during the nineteenth century, which disrupted daily lives and caused several deaths. Therefore, to prevent its spreading, the then Parliament enacted the said Act, consisting of four sections. Significant sections of this Act are:

  • Section 2 which states that the Government is empowered to take concrete actions and stipulate directions if the State is under a threat of any dangerous disease or the ordinary laws are insufficient for the purpose. Section 2A provides the Government with the power to make provisions for the inspection of any ships or vessels arriving or leaving ports and detention of a person who intends to sail or has sailed.
  • Section 3 deals with the framework which confers the Government with the power to impose penalties on those who disobey any regulations prescribed by the concerned authority under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (“IPC”). Section 188 as defined under Chapter X of IPC, “Of Contempts of the Lawful Authority of Public Servants” states that if any disobedience is caused by a person knowingly, leading to hindrance, annoyance, harm, or injury to any other person then such person will be punished under this section. The First Schedule of Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, considers this offence as cognizable as well as bailable and can be brought to court by a Magistrate.
  • Section 4 of the same Act provides protection to the person against any suit or legal proceedings for anything done with bona fide intention under this Act.

Limitations of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897

This Act had been formulated 123 years ago, and keeping in mind the changes that happened during the recent years, it consists of several limitations. Gradually, principal factors responsible for the mushrooming of diseases have also been modified. For example, nowadays, we prefer to travel by air instead of a ship. The limitation arises here is that it focuses on traveling by ship or vessels and railways rather than airplanes.

As the Act was authorized by the Britishers to control the situation in Bombay, it could be doubted that their real motive behind the enactment of the said Act was to apprehend and seize public gatherings led by the revolutionist.

This Act needs a lot of moderation as with time, most epidemiological concepts have changed, including the precautionary measures undertaken to curb epidemic diseases. Besides, this Act is not in conformity with the recent scientific advancements that we use today to respond to these diseases. For instance, it insists on the isolation or quarantine of patients at home but, is reserved on the scientific methods used to curb outbreaks such as immunization, vaccination, medication, government response towards the disease, setting up a laboratory, etc. It focuses more on the aversion to the spread of the disease rather than to extirpate it. Thus, we need an Act that focuses more on scientific understanding rather than dealing with administrative and policing acts.

The Act refers to a “dangerous epidemic disease”, but does not define it. Criteria are not mentioned to determine how a disease is considered “dangerous” under the said Act and who decides whether a disease is dangerous or not. But the problem still persists; the said Act neither prescribes a situation as when it should be invoked nor does it tell us how to handle a scenario like the present one. It only empowers the Government to pass any guidelines or legislation as it deems fit. Also, it does not provide any directions to the Government for the organization of committees or any special authority which can represent both Central and State Government and can act on its own in a preventive manner without waiting for the Government’s approval.

This Act does not provide any relief and financial assistance to the general public, to sustain their livelihood during a crisis like the present one. Further, it can impose only criminal penalties for its violation rather than imposing both criminal and civil penalties. It also does not protect the healthcare workers, police personnel, or any other person from harassment, abuse, or any injury caused by performing their duties.

Most importantly, it does not protect citizens’ fundamental rights such as, right to privacy which comprises dignity, personal freedom, and liberty. Although there are some reasonable restrictions on fundamental rights in respect of public interest, the legislation does not provide a guarantee against the abuse of privacy right by the State.

Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020

After the approval of the proclamation of an Ordinance by the Union Government, to protect the nurses, doctors, and other healthcare service personnel and their property from attacks and harassment during epidemics, the President had sanctioned this Ordinance, which covers the limitations and flaws in the Act.

This Ordinance enhances the powers of the Union to prevent such an epidemic and seeks to offer protection to medical professionals.Major provisions of this ordinance are:

Section 1A (a), which defines “act of violence” to consist of the following acts committed against healthcare service personnel:

  • harassment of such personnel and prohibiting him from discharging his duties,
  • harm, injury, or danger to his or her life,
  • obstructing him in discharging his duties,
  • damage to any property of such personnel.

The Ordinance defines “healthcare service personnel” as the personnel who are at the risk of being impacted by an epidemic while carrying out his duties. They consist of:

  • any public healthcare personnel,
  • any other person authorized under the said act to avert the epidemic,
  • any person declared by the government as such personnel.

It also expands the power of the Union to monitor any bus, train, ship, or airplane, arriving or leaving from any station, port, or aerodrome and detain any person intending to travel by any of these means.

For the protection of the Healthcare service personnel and their property, provisions have been made against those who commit or abet any act against the healthcare community, punishable with imprisonment between three months and five years along with a fine ranging between Rs.50,000 and Rs.2,00,000. If an act causes grievous hurt, then imprisonment will be between six months and seven years along with a fine ranging between Rs.1,00,000 and Rs.5,00,000.

Further, a provision has been made for the time-bound investigation which is to be done within 30 days after the registration of the First Information Report, and inquiry must be completed within one year thereafter. Failure in this regard must be recorded, and a maximum additional period of six months can be granted for the same.

Conclusion

To combat such an epidemic our country has amended this Act to safeguard the life as well as the property of the health service workers. Unfortunately, before this ordinance, no legislation existed to protect the life and property of the healthcare community during the pandemic. Although each State has amended this Act as per their requirements and has their Acts to grapple with the current scenario. There was a need for the single enactment in which all the provisions are assembled so that its implementation can be monitored. It is contemplated that the passing of this Ordinance would bring positive changes to the benefit of the healthcare community, enabling then to perform their duties without any obstruction.

Author: Soumya Nayak, student of National Law University Odisha.

Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, LexLife India.

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