Sneak-peak into the Epidemic Diseases Act and Regulations for times like these

Background

Amid the Global Coronavirus Pandemic which has caused disruption all the world, many countries have taken different mitigation steps to tackle the spread of this deadly virus. Due to the absence of adequate medication to prevent and cure the virus in time, countries were forced to enter a compulsory lock-down to exercise social distance and prevent the spread of the virus. India, which is amongst the worst-hit countries has also taken several measures to mitigate the disruption caused by the virus.

The Central Government of India invoked the provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 (“Act”) and has invoked a nationwide lock-down to protect the Indian Citizens from the spread of this deadly disease in the recent past.

This blog post intends to provide an overview of the Act and recent Regulations under the Act, adopted by States in 2020 – which has severely impacted businesses and individuals alike.

Act Overview

The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 is one of the oldest and shortest pieces of legislation in India a remnant of the British era that gives unfettered power to the government to take extreme measures to .

This Act was initially passed to curb the Bubonic Plague outbreak which wreaked havoc amongst the Indian population. Due to the lack of parallel legislation governing the spread of deadly diseases in India, the Epidemic Diseases Act was relatively an important legislation since it empowered State Governments with various rights to take measures for mitigating different risks associated with the outbreak of viruses and diseases. Ever since its inception, the Act has been routinely invoked to contain the spread of diseases. These provisions have been triggered during the Cholera, Swine Flu and Dengue Epidemics.

This act is one of the shortest Act in India comprising of just 4 sections.

Power of the State Governments to make regulations

State Government of the country may take measures and prescribe special regulations when the State Government is of the view that other Acts are insufficient for the said purpose by means of public notice. State Governments can prescribe special regulations to inspect the persons traveling by railways or other public transportation, segregation, in hospital, temporary accommodation, or otherwise, if a person is suspected to be infected by disease by the inspecting officer.

Powers of the Central Government

The Central Government may take appropriate measures or special regulations to inspect any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port or any person intending to sail.

Penalties

Any person contravening any regulation or order made under this Act shall be deemed to have committed an offence and punishable under section 188[1] of Indian Penal Code.

States Epidemic Disease (Covid-19) Regulations, 2020:

By virtue of this Act, State Governments are empowered to make decisions when they are of the view that other acts and measures have been insufficient to tackle the spread of the disease. In India, amid the Corona crisis, several State Governments have invoked the provisions of this Act to prevent the further spread of the virus. The State Governments have sealed-off their geographical boundaries, preventing entry and exit of the people which by itself is against the tenets of the federalism and the violative of fundamental rights of people.

State Governments have also ordered the complete closure of schools, colleges, offices and public gatherings which would speed spreading of the deadly virus. States such as Kerala, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi have followed stricter norms by tracking travel history of the suspected patients. People returning from abroad, where Covid-19 is reported are required to submit a self-declaration form and disclose conditions related to health and Coronavirus symptoms, if any.  While these states have implemented a general fourteen-day quarantine norm for persons returning from Covid-19 affected country, Karnataka has enacted an even stricter rule of Twenty-Eight day home quarantine from the day of exposure. While these states are following specific guidelines, States such are Mizoram and Orissa have generic guidelines. Most Indian States have maintained designated hospitals and offices for any Coronavirus related correspondence. The States have also authorized Disaster Management Committees to undertake risk mitigation strategies against the spread of the virus.

Various State Governments have suspended public transport facilities except for the people working in essential services. Restrictions, as well as relaxations in the movement of the people, depends upon the frequency of corona positive cases in any given State. This Act has also enabled State Governments to create an active surveillance unit to tackle the dissemination of the virus. Such surveillance unit is placed at different areas in the state to prevent the movement of people or to authorize and regulate the movement of people working in essential services. Such measures have indeed aided in reducing the risk of spreading the disease.

Epidemic Diseases Act (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020:

Central government on 22nd April 2020 amended this Act through an ordinance to protect the frontline warriors and healthcare personnel, doctors, health workers or anyone who is in charge of any sanitary or public welfare facilities against any violence. Any act of commission or abetment of violence against healthcare service personnel shall be punished with imprisonment for a term of (03) three months to (05) five years, and with fine of INR 50,000/- to INR 2,00,000/-. In case of causing grievous hurt under Sec 320 of the Indian Penal Code, imprisonment shall be for a term of (06) six months to (07) seven years and with fine of INR I,00,000/- to INR 5,00,000/-.

Conclusion

The Indian Government has taken refuge under the provisions of this British-era Act to limit and contain the spread of the Coronavirus. While the provisions of this Act have relatively controlled the spread, it is clear that India cannot rely on such ancient law which is wide given that the British Raj era in which it was passed.

A quintessential concept of ‘Essential Services’ and the movement of the people involved in such services deserves recognition in any modern day situation where the nation is one village. To prevent the movement of people who guise themselves are essential servicemen, thereby jeopardizing the rights of genuine essential servicemen, it necessary to define and classify the concept of ‘Essential Services’.

Any such act with such far reaching consequences should also impose obligations on the state and private medical institutions to equip themselves  Further, the law needs to incorporate the rights, limitations and obligations of government and private hospitals acting as agents for the treatment of epidemic diseases. This will limit hospitals refusing to accept patients and charging exorbitant fees for their treatment.

While it is well known that the State Governments are now empowered to curb activities that would lead to spreading of the virus, the less well known fact is that invoking the Act empowers Magistrates to issue  wide ranging notices and orders for the removal of public nuisance of any kind, and to punish people for contravening the provisions of the Act. Such a wide ranging act should contain its own method of checks and balances so that it is not wielded as a political weapon by any Government.

[1] Section 188- Whoever, knowing that, by an order promulgated by a public serv­ant lawfully empowered to promulgate such order, he is directed to abstain from a certain act, or to take certain order with certain property in his possession or under his management, disobeys such direction, shall, if such disobedience causes or tends to cause obstruction, annoyance or injury, or risk of obstruction, annoyance or injury, to any person lawfully employed, be punished with simple impris­onment for a term which may extend to one month or with fine which may extend to two hundred rupees, or with both; and if such disobedience causes or trends to cause danger to human life, health or safety, or causes or tends to cause a riot or affray, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees, or with both.

Nitin Jain (with assistance from Amogh Taskar – Intern)

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