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Article on Evaluation of Epidemic Diseases Act,1897

Since contemporary times, India has witnessed many large outbreaks of infectious and dangerous diseases. The outbreak of epidemics like cholera in 1992, Plague in 1994,dengue fever, Nipah virus, Japanese Encephalitis and Pandemics like H5N1 and H1N1 influenza caused a widespread chaos in the past. Currently India and many other countries are facing Pandemic- COVID 19 or Corona virus.

The number of infected patients and deaths due to COVID 19 are increasing day by day. This pandemic poses threats to public health, health security of India and has created an emergency like situation. When facing these types of health emergences various legal provisions play an important role to control and tackle such situations.

Some of the existing legal frameworks in India to control the spread of epidemics are Provisions of IPC 1860, Livestock Importation Act 1898,Indian Ports Act 1908, Disaster Management Act 2005 and most important Epidemic Diseases Act 1897.Recently Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 has been invoked by many states with an aim to control and minimise community transfer of corona virus.

Hence in this context and in reference to present scenario it becomes important to study and review this 123 year old archaic act. This act is one of the shortest acts with just 4 sections. The act describes the power of state and central governments in preventing and controlling epidemics.

This article attempts to evaluate critically the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897.The article gives a brief history and background of the act, describes various provisions of this act, its relevance in current scenario and whether it has kept with current global trend to control the widespread of the virus.

This article also discusses the ordinance that was passed on 22nd April to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to provide protection to the healthcare workers and their property. Furthermore the article aims to identify the limitations and gives recommendations to overcome lacunae in the act. The article also provides various judicial cases related to the act.

Background Of The Act

The Epidemic Diseases Act was enforced in 1897 to deal with the plague epidemic that broke out in the presidency town of Bombay. The act was enacted for better prevention of epidemic diseases such as Cholera, Plague, etc. The plague took millions of lives and the British government were tasked with the difficult job of containing the disease to spread further, so the local authorities were given special powers by the then governor general Victor Bruce to take actions in order to control the epidemic.

The result was that the chairman Bombay Plague committee Brigadier General W.F. Gatacre along with other members made a law against people who were fleeing from their municipal limits so as to prevent the disease from spreading in the entire British colony. The century old legislation has again come into use for preventing the spread of COVID 19.

Provisions Of The Act

The Epidemic Act is one of the smallest act. It contains only four sections which can be invoked by centre or state government where the existing laws seems to be insufficient to control the spread of the epidemic. Section 1, throws light upon the name and the territorial limit of the act. Section 2, it is the major part of the act. It confers powers on the State Government to prescribe regulations and take special measures to deal dangerous epidemic disease.

Further it gives power to states that if they are convinced that any part of their state is threatened by an epidemic and the existing laws are insufficient to manage the situation then the state has power to make temporary regulations necessary to control the outbreak that will be binding on people. The second clause allows inspection of suspected person with disease who has travelled by an public transport or have visited any public place.

This provision has been used many times in the past for e.g.: Mumbai and Pune have used the act to control the spread of swine flu in 2009, Chandigarh in 2015 used the act to prevent the spread of swine flu and malaria, etc and recently it is being used across India to deal with the global threat of COVID 19.

Section 2A empowers central government to make provisions for whole or any part of the country in case of an epidemic if they think that the existing laws are insufficient and can also inspect marine transport and people travelling in such transports. Section 3, mentions about the penalty for people who will not abide by the provisions of the act. Such people will be considered as to have committed crime under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

A person disobeying the regulations of the act can be punished with 6 months imprisonment or 1000 rupees fine or both. This provision further mentions that for proving a person guilty under this act mensrea is not required to be proved i.e. only an act of not obeying the act and having knowledge that such a behaviour may prove threatening to the society at large, is sufficient to punish the person. Section 4 throws light on the immunities given to officials who are responsible for implementing the act. A person acting in good faith under this act is immune from suits and other legal proceedings.

Limitations Of The Act

This archaic act was promulgated 123 years ago. In this era of changing priorities the act suffers from many limitations. Firstly, the definition of dangerous epidemic disease is not given in the act. Furthermore the criteria to decide whether a disease is dangerous or not is also not given.  It cannot be said that whether definition of dangerous is based on the magnitude of population affected, seriousness of problem or widespread of the disease.

Secondly, the act is merely regulatory in nature and focuses only on the powers of government. The act does not describe duties of government and rights of citizens. No provision of the act concentrates on interests, desires, needs, healthy lifestyle of people. Also the act does not provide the situations under which liberty and privacy of people can be compromised, hence there are chances of misuse of the act. Thirdly, the act may be said to be just a document on paper.

The act provides only quarantine measures and does not provide scientific measures that can be taken to prevent the spread of the disease. Fourthly, the act says any person can be empowered to take some measure but in present days we have better health care systems. Integrated Disease Surveillance Units (IDSP), District chief medical officers, each district with a surveillance unit and a rapid response team (RRT), field workers, various health care medical officers have been assigned the task for care of the health system .Hence the act saying any person makes no sense. It ought to specify who and what. Fifthly, the act needs some modifications in context of present scenario.

Unlike past there is now an increase in rates of international travels, urbanization, air travels, migration of people towards cities, an increase in man and animals contacts, ecological changes, increase in population. This point can be explained through an example -the act focuses on sea travels and is silent on air travel but in present times air travel is used more so regulation on air travel is required.

Also the punishment provided in case of disobeying any order under the act that is pari passu with section -188 of IPC 1860 needs to be revisited. Lastly, the act does not provide the role of local governments which can work at grass-root level. The ethics of public health actions taken in response to an outbreak should be considered, as should the obligations of healthcare workers during an outbreak and the obligations of society to them in return.

Amendment In Epidemic Diseases Act 1897

Recently, in many places in India the health care workers were attacked by many perpetrators. After such acts of attacks on corona warriors, the central government brought an ordinance on 22nd April to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 and to punish such perpetrators who attacked the warriors.  This move of government is indeed welcomed and is praiseworthy.
The government in order to protect corona warriors, health workers and their property approved promulgation of ordinance on 22nd April to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897. The amendment makes acts of violence, against health workers and other medical staff) as a cognizable and non-bailable offence.

Now commission of offence against health workers shall be punished with imprisonment of term for 3 months to 5 years and with fine of Fifty thousand Rupees to Twenty thousand Rupees. In case, grievous hurt is caused then the imprisonment shall be for term of 6 months to 7 years and with fine of 1 lac to 5 lakhs. Furthermore the offender will also have to pay a amount as a compensation to the victim and double the market price shall be charged for recovery of damage done to the property of victim.

Recommendations And Reforms
In the current context what we require the most is a strong legal framework that will not just provide the powers of government but shall also define the duties, obligations of government and government's role in combating and preventing diseases. Many people who have reviewed the act are of the opinion that this act is outdated. There is a need for an integrated, comprehensive, actionable and relevant legal provision for the control of disease outbreaks in India.

Such framework should be people-oriented, based on rights. The national health bill is one such proposed legislation but it has limited reference to ethical frameworks. There is also a need of a system that can prove helpful in circulating the information at ground level. There is also a need of Public Private Partnership PPP Model of healthcare.
The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, which is 123 years old legislation, was enacted to prevent epidemics but now it seems to fail to keep up with the changing needs of the evolving society. Although many times the act has been implemented by various states to control the spread of various diseases but now the world demands for a powerful codified law to deal with diseases like COVID 19. The act has several shortcomings which have been dealt with time and again; recent one being that the act had no provision for the safety of health workers.

Thus the act has become insufficient and outdated. There is no uniformity of law as different provisions are followed by different states and so the need of the hour is a comprehensive codified public oriented health code.

Written By:
  1. Shubhi Singh - 2nd year student at Faculty of Law, University of Lucknow and
  2. Ananya Mohan - 2nd year student at Faculty of Law, University of Lucknow

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