The spread of Coronavirus in India has brought the situation of health disaster and has compelled us to recapitulate the existence of the Epidemic Diseases Act which was enacted centuries ago in 1897. There reason behind the enactment of this Act was the spread of bubonic plague in the State of Bombay (now Mumbai). This Act was written by the British Administration in a short period of time so as to tackle the epidemic. India has been a witness in many lives taking disease spreading throughout the country post-independence. Some of them are the spread of cholera in 1992, plague in Surat in 1994, the outbreak of Chikanguniya, Dengue Fever and the Avian influenza.
Now, the radically growing outbreak of COVID-19 is health disaster worldwide. In order to handle the pandemic the provisions of this Act have been implemented.
This Article will be explaining the provisions of the Act, its loopholes in contemporary India, States’ initiative to adopt health legislation and some recommendation as to how the loopholes of the Act can be filled.
ANALYSIS OF THE EPIDEMIC DISEASE ACT, 1897 ACT
The Epidemic Disease Act is shortest legislation as it has only four sections.
Section 1 explains scope and title. Section 2 and 2A empower the State and Central Government respectively to take necessary measures during epidemic when it is satisfied that the State or any part thereof /country or any part thereof is threatened by an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease moreover if it thinks proper that the ordinary provisions of the law are insufficient then the Government may take, require, or empower any person to take some measure.
Further, the State or Centre may recommend regulations for inspection of person 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 3 of the Act talks about the penalty, it states that if any person disobeys any regulation made under EPIDEMIC DISEASE ACT, 1897, it will be deemed to have committed an offence under Section 188 of Indian Penal Code 1870.
Section 4 of the Act is of utmost importance as it protects person acting under this Act. It provides that they shall neither be held liable nor any suit or legal proceedings shall lie against any person for anything done or in good faith intended to be done under this Act deals with Protection to persons acting under Act.
LIMITATIONS FACED UNDER PRESENT SCENARIO
- Lack of definition of “Dangerous Epidemic Disease”
The age old Act was drafted in an urgency to regulate and prevent the spread of Plague, therefore, it is unable to clear several ambiguities. There is no clear definition of disease or dangerous epidemic disease as to the basis of the magnitude of the problem, the severity of the problem, the age of the population affected or its potential to spread internationally. It is significant to have information as to how and on what basis it decides the epidemic disease and measures to prevent its spread.
- Rights of Citizen during Pandemic
The Act is entirely regulatory in nature and lacks a specific public health focus. It highlights the power and duties of the government but remains silent on the rights of citizens. It does not address the conduct of the people during the pandemic. Moreover, it has no provision as to how people who are infected with epidemic disease will be treated and how to save uninfected which may be done by providing the facility of vaccination, drugs, facility of medical staff, equipment and hospitals.
Further, India being a vast country, there are remote areas where the possibility of spreading contagious disease remains extremely high, the same issue remains unaddressed under the Act. While enforcing any law, certain aspects should be taken into consideration they may be individual’s autonomy, privacy, liberty and property rights of the people.
- Lack of Comprehensive Legislation
The Act has numerous ambiguities as it does not specifically provide any due process that has to be taken during the epidemic. Thereafter, it does not categorically define the powers and duties of Central and State government during the time of health crisis. Though, India has multiple legal remedies to provide assistance during such situation but they are not addressed under a single legislation which made it evident that every State did not take active participation to escape from hazardous diseases. In an attempt to provide a systematic approach to tackle life risking disease Central Government in 1987 and 1955 introduced a Model Public Health Act, but could not advocate states to adopt them. Thereafter, the National Health Bill, 2009 strive to ensure broad legal framework for providing essential public health services and functions and powers to respond public emergencies through effective collaboration between Centre and the States.
- Deficient Punishment
Section 3 of the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897talks about penalty, it states as under –
“Any person disobeying any regulation or order made under this Act shall be deemed to have committed an offence punishable under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code”.
In order to understand the lacking point we need to understand the provision of Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code which evidently points out that the disobedience of order promulgated by public servant will be liable to be charged under this Section and may be punished with the “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.” The punishment provided is extremely less as compared to the harm caused by the violation of the order and also the fine imposed is not appropriate in accordance with the current day. Furthermore, in respect of the procedure, this Section of IPC is revisable which makes it least effective. Due to this drawback, to tackle COVID-19 situation the Government has to take support of other legislations as well such as National Security Act and stricter provisions of IPC to punish the individuals not following the Government’s orders.
STEPS TAKEN BY STATES FOR PUBLIC HEALTH LEGISLATION
As there was no effective Central Legislation for public health issues, the government of Madras enacted the first state legislation “Madras Public Health Act” in 1939. Thereafter, learning from the State of Madras, other states also encompassed following provisions in their respective Epidemic Disease Act:
- Himachal Pradesh – provision for compulsory vaccination
- Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh – gave powers to specific officers to execute various provisions of the Act.
- Bihar – to make arrangements for vehicles during pandemic
Like-wise different States made changes according to them but there is a need of a common platform for battling diseases.
- Instead of having executive instruction, the Act more or less appears like a guidance document. Therefore, there is a need to specify powers and duties of Central and State Government and to insert an effective mechanism so as to tackle the pandemic. It will certainly help in monitoring and working of government and to maintain the transparency and accountability.
- It needs to relook so as to amend the territorial jurisdiction of the Act and significantly add every channel of transportation since it only includes waterways.
- There is a critical need to bring together all the provisions in one Public Health Legislation so that its implementation can be monitored effectively. The lack of comprehensive Public Health legislation makes us dependent upon old and blunt instrument which is a non-functional Act.
- The Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme works for early detection of outbreak. Thereafter, there is systematic team of officers who work for detection and prevention of spreading of outbreaks. When such system is in place then following the prescription “any” person may be empowered does not make sense. The word “any” cannot be accepted in the current context, and “who” can do “what” needs to be specified
After analysing the provisions of the Act, it is evident that it is beyond doubt that this is Century old act and needs an absolute overhaul to adjust the changing public health priorities. Many states have enforced their own public health laws and some have amended the provisions of their Epidemic Disease Acts. But, these Acts vary in quality and content. Most of them are only “regulating” acts intended to prevent epidemics and do not deal with coordinated and scientific responses to prevent and tackle outbreaks. There is a need for a cohesive, wide-ranging, executable and relevant legal provision for the control of outbreaks in India that should be pronounced in a rights-based, people-focused and public health-oriented manner. In this regard the Central Government has drafted the National Health Bill, 2009 however it is still in its long development period and its fate is unpredictable.
- The Epidemic Diseases Act,1897
- Section 188 of Indian Penal Code, 1860
- “Epidemic diseases act 1897, India: Whether sufficient to address the current challenges?” published on Journal of Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Science
- “The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897: public health relevance in the current scenario” published at Indian Journal of Medical Ethics
- “Limitation of Epidemic Disease Act” published on IAS Express
- Imgae Credit – https://www.google.com/www.thesikkimchronicle.com