EPIDEMIC DISEASES ACT, 1897 : ITS USE AND RELEVANCE TODAY

by Shruti Prakash Pandav

HISTORY

Tracing back the history of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, it was first enacted in former British India to tackle the epidemic of bubonic plague in Bombay. However, it can be doubted the enactment of such Act with limited provisions had a different intention of the British officers through which it was misused to arrest and confine the public gatherings led by the freedom fighters. The British Government had a clear motive to imprison the freedom fighters. The Central Government has limited powers under the Act. It is seen through various epidemics till date that the various states in the country has brought the Act in power.

India has witnessed the use of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 from time to time during epidemic of various diseases such as plague, dengue, malaria, cholera, swine flu. In the timeline it is seen that in 2009, it helped during the widespread of Swine flu in Pune. In 2015, to combat the outbreaks of Dengue and Malaria in Chandigarh. In 2018, it helped when there was large-scale spread of Cholera in Gujarat. In 2017, a draft was prepared called the Public Health (prevention, control and management of epidemic, bio terrorism and disaster) bill to replace the act but according to public health experts certain areas need to be touched. Moreover, in 2020 during the COVID – 19 pandemic, states like Karnataka, Maharashtra, Delhi, Kerala have issued ‘COVID – 19 regulations 2020’. In the current scenario, many incidences has posed a serious threat to the protection of the frontline healthcare workers and prevention of attacks on them. Several incidences have been reported throughout the country which requires stringent laws and regulations in the present situation. Due to one such incidence Karnataka Government has introduced a law which provides for strict punishment for offences against healthcare workers. Governor of Karnataka has promulgated the Karnataka Epidemic Diseases Ordinance, 2020. Prior to this the Governor of Kerala has promulgated the Kerala Epidemic Diseases Ordinance, 2020.


PROVISIONS OF THE EPIDEMIC DISEASES ACT, 1897:

The objective of the Act is to prevent the spread of Dangerous Epidemic Diseases.[1] Considering that in order to control the situation prevailing in India related to COVID-19, Government invoked powers under The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. As per this Act, the State Government or Central Government has the power to take special measures and prescribe regulations as to dangerous epidemic disease. The Act consists of four sections.


Section 2 - Power to take special measures and prescribe regulations as to dangerous epidemic disease.

When the State Government is satisfied that India or any part threatened with an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease and the existing provisions of the ordinary law are insufficient to prevent the outbreak or contain its spread then it empowers the State Governments to take necessary measures to prevent the outbreak or spread of such epidemic.[2] Since, the Public health features is in the state list under the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India, the centre is related to an advisory role and the primary imposing rules and regulations is done by the State.[3] State Government may take measures and prescribe regulations for the inspection of persons travelling by railway or otherwise, and the segregation, in hospital, temporary accommodation or otherwise, of persons suspected by the inspecting officer of being infected with any such disease


Section 2A - Powers of Central Government

When the Central Government is satisfied that India or any part thereof is visited by, or threatened with, an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease and that the ordinary provisions of the law for the time being in force are insufficient to prevent the outbreak of such disease or the spread thereof, the Central Government may take measures and prescribe regulations for the inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port in and for such detention thereof, or of any person intending to sail therein, or arriving thereby, as may be necessary.[4]


SECTION 3 - Penalty

Any person who disobeys any regulation or order passed under this law shall be punished under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.[5] As per section 188 of IPC, if the disobedience to the order duly promulgated by a public servant which tends to cause danger to human life, health or safety, 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.[6] States may also issue orders by invoking section 144 of CrPC, 1973 to restrict public gatherings and impose a curfew.[7]


SECTION 4 - Protection to persons acting under Act

No suit or other legal proceeding shall lie against any person for anything done or in good faith intended to be done under this Act.[8]


Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020

The ordinance was passed with a view to provide protection the healthcare services personnel. In Dr. Jerryl Banait v. Union of India, a medical professional had filed a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution on the need to ensure the availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Furthermore, the Court took note of the uncommon occupational hazards that the healthcare personnel were compelled to put up with. In view thereof, the Court directed the Government of India to provide necessary police security to the doctors and medical staff in hospitals and places where patients who have been diagnosed or where patients suspected of COVID-19 are housed. Moreover, the Court condemned the violence and directed the Centre to take necessary action against those persons who obstruct and commit any offence in relation to the performance of duties by doctors, medical staff, etc. who are deputed to contain COVID-19.[9]

On 22 April 2020, the Government of India announced the promulgation of an ordinance, 'The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance 2020', to amend the act, adding provisions to punish those attacking doctors or health workers. The ordinance allows for up to seven years of jail for attacking doctors or health workers (including ASHA workers). The offense will be cognizable and non-bailable among other things. In addition to this, such cases need to be investigated in a time-bound and must be resolved in 1 year. Also, the law specifies that the guilty will have to pay twice the market value of the damaged property as compensation for damaging the assets of health care staff including vehicles and clinics.


Limitation of the Act

The first and foremost thing which the Act lacks is the definition of epidemic diseases. The Act does not provide measures for isolation of the suspected patients and isolation centres. There should be provisions directing the state governments to build isolation centres in all hospitals and housing societies to be used as isolation centres at the time of epidemic. Apart from isolation or quarantine measures the Act is mum on the legal framework of availability and distribution of vaccines and drugs and implementation of response measures. There is no reference pertaining to the ethical aspects or human rights principles during a response to an epidemic. Act is silent on how drugs and vaccines can be distributed by the Government. Act does not give any guidelines for the formation of a special committee or a disaster management team which can act upon emergency. Modern day realities are different there is a need for few changes that would cop up with the existing situations.


[1] Section 1, The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 [2] Section 2, The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 [3] Seventh Schedule of the Constitution [4] Section 2A, The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 [5] Section 3, The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 [6] Section 188 of The Indian Penal Code,1860 [7] Section 144 of CrPC [8] Section 4, The Epidemic Disease Act,

1897 [9] Dr. Jerryl Banait v. Union of India

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