The Indian Government on 11th march 2020 invoked the colonial Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 (hereinafter referred to as the act) along with the Disaster Management Act, 2005(hereafter referred to as DM Act). This step was taken after the WHO declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic and to combat the spread of this deadly virus in India.
Let us understand the background of one of the smallest acts with only four sections in it. The Epidemic Disease Act was first enacted during the British Rule in India to curb the spread of the bubonic plague in Bombay. Henceforth the Act has been invoked many times. In 2009 to combat the Swine flu in Pune, in 2015 to curb the dengue in Chandigarh, in 2018 during Cholera spread in Gujarat, and now in 2020 to combat the spread of the Corona Virus. But the question arises that whether this archaic legislation has relevance in the contemporary time when the country has developed in many aspects than it was back in 1897. To answer this question we need to be aware of the provisions of this act. This act aims to provide for the better prevention of the spread of Dangerous Epidemic Diseases. Section 1 is the Short title and extent of the act. Section 2 of the act states the power to take special measures and prescribe regulations as too dangerous epidemic diseases. Sub-section 2A grants power to the Central Government to inspect any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port when the act is in force. Section 3 talks about the penalty for any person disobeying the orders under this act. Section 4 gives immunity or protection to persons acting under Act.
While the DM Act has clear mention of when to act, how to act, who should act, measures that should be taken by the government, the role of different departments of central and the state government, there are lots of lacunae in this act according to the present time. The first and the major defect of the legislation is that unlike any other legislation it does not provide any definition or interpretation clause. Every act defines some basic terms used in the act. The very purpose of this act is to prevent the spread of Dangerous Epidemic Diseases but what is the meaning and who and on what parameters decides the nature of the epidemic is not defined. On the other hand, the DM Act clearly defines Disaster and the parameters on which this act can be invoked. The use of the word ship or vessel is the second defect of this act. The act was enacted when the technology was not so developed and the mode of transportation was ship or vessels. With the advancement in technology and other fields, there has been a shift in the mode of transportation from ships to airplanes and rails. It is not correct to consider airplanes and rails under the ambit of the Ships and vessels only. The penalty or punishment given on disobeying the orders of the act under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code was the imprisonment of a maximum of six months or a fine of thousand or both. The quantum of punishment for people disobeying the law and risking the lives of others was not very deterrent moreover the offense was bailable. On April 22, 2020, the government brought an ordinance to amend the act to make the punishments more stringent for offenses against the health workers. This step was taken after the continuous rise in the incidents against the health workers. According to the amended law, the punishment ranges from three months to seven years of imprisonment and a fine from Fifty thousand to two lakhs. The offense is now cognizable and non-bailable.
Recently a Public Interest Litigation was filed before the Karnataka High Court. The petition was filed for the safety of the prisoners and the people visiting them during the outbreak of the virus. The petitioner raised the question regarding the measures taken by the government for the vulnerable section of society. He also pleaded for the safety of the prisoners as they live close to each other. If the virus enters the jail then this will risk the life of lawyers, officers, court staff, and security personnel visiting them. The petitioner also prayed, inter alia for amending the act according to the suggestions from various organizations and experts, for the setup of Epidemic Disease Control Board for prevention and spreading of epidemic diseases, to draft strategies for social distancing at public places.
Additionally, the act is also silent on many other aspects like the measures that the government should take during the epidemics, the rights of the citizens, is right to privacy applicable while the inspection? There has been no mention of the duties of the government and the rights of the citizens during the epidemic. The act has no provisions that take the people’s interest into consideration.
There have been many failed attempts in the past to replace the colonial act with a new activity according to present requirements and situations. One such attempt was made in 2017 by drafting the Public Health (Prevention, Control, and Management of epidemics, bioterrorism, and disasters) Bill, 2017 which could have replaced the century-old Act. However, to date, the draft has not been tabled in the parliament and is still under the consideration of law ministry. Some of the officials believe that if the government is satisfied with the current provisions of the law than there is no need to amend the act. Some of the amendments that are necessary for the act are-
- Addition of a definition or an interpretation clause which should clearly define the meaning of the ‘Dangerous Epidemic Disease’.
- Including airplanes and rails along with ship or vessel in section 2 of the clause.
- Clear distinctions in the role of the Central and the State government like the DM Act have.
- All the states in India should have a Public Health Act. As of now only eight states in India have the Public Health Act.
- There should be proper provisions for the basic necessities of the life during the lockdown due to the outbreak of the epidemics.
- Rights of the health workers during the epidemic should also be stated in the act.
- There should be provisions in the Act, to maintain standards in quality of care, rationality of treatment, cost of care, treatment protocol and ethical behavior applicable to both public and private sectors. There should be a regulating body involving people from both the sectors.
- Punishment for hoarding of the essential items during the epidemic should be incorporated in the act.
Many countries have a detailed law on epidemics but India has a law with only four sections. The situation in future might be completely different and the present provisions of the act may not be able to deal with it. It is a need of an hour to amend the law and have a detailed version of it keeping in mind the future developments.
 Definition of disaster according to the disaster management act is,” A catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or manmade causes, or by accident or negligence which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, and destruction of property, or damage to, or degradation of environment and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area.”
 PS, Rakesh The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897: public health relevance in the current scenario. Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, [S.l.], v. 1, n. 3 (NS), p. 156, nov. 2016. ISSN 0975-5691
Image by- Khushi Walani (www.instagram.com/whoshe_/)
She is a second year student pursuing law from Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA. She has participated in many MUNs and have been in core team of sports fest of her college. She has keen interest in politics, constitution and animal rights.