Is there a need for amending the epidemic disease Act of 1897?
EPIDEMIC DISEASE ACT 1897, INDIA : COMBATING CHALLENGES-
India has witnessed many large outbreaks of reemerging infection disease in the recent past. At present COVID -19 pandemic has pushed many states in India to invoke the various provisions of the Epidemic Disease Act.1897 to control the current COVID-19 outbreak. The Epidemic Disease Act was passed in 1897 with the aim of better preventing the spread of dangerous epidemic disease[i]. This Act was executed the first time to tackle the Plague epidemic which broke out in the 1890s then Bombay State. It Confines Plaque by a series of tough measures. It prevents crowds from gathering, empowers executives to invoke the search for suspected cases in homes and among passengers, force affected persons to remain in segregated places, mass evacuation, demolition of infected places are also included in these measures. The Epidemic Act is one of the shortest acts in India, comprising just four sections. Those sections are as follows[ii];
Section 1 says that the act may be called as Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and it extends to the whole of India except the territories which immediately before the 1st November 1956 were composed in Part B states.
Section 2 states that when the state government is satisfied that the state or any part thereof is visited by or threatened with an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease; and if it thinks that the ordinary provisions of the law are insufficient for the purpose then the state may take, or require or empower any person to take some measures and by public notice prescribe such temporary regulations to be observed by the public. The state government may 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 empowers the central government for inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port and for detention thereof, or of any person intending to sail therein, or arriving thereby.
Section 3 prescribes penalty for disobeying any regulation or order made under the Act in accordance with section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. Under this provision, a punishment of 6 months imprisonment or 1,000 rupees fine or both shall be meted out to the person who disobeys any order under the Act.
Section 4 clearly mentions that 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.
The legal framework has substantial value during the situation of emergency. It can delineate the responses of the government to Public health and emphasises the duties and rights of citizens. The Epidemic Disease Act is outdated and purely effective in nature. It is 113 years old with an archaic framework and fell to match with present priorities in public health emergencies. It also lacks a specific public health focus and does not describe the duties of the government in preventing and controlling epidemics. There is a requirement of an integrated comprehensive, actionable and legal provision to tackle disease outbreak in India. The Act must be articulated in a right based people-focused and public health-oriented manner. The Epidemic Act has also not provided the definition of ‘Dangerous Epidemic Disease’. It has no clear definition , whether an epidemic is ‘dangerous’ on the severity of the problem the age of the population affected or its potential to spread intentionally.
The Epidemic Disease Act is silent regarding the specific steps that need to be taken by the government to curtail or prevent the spread of disease. Moreover, The Act is also mum on the Legal framework of availability and distribution of vaccine and drugs and implementation of response measures.
A good public health law infrastructure establishes not only the powers of the government but also shapes the government’s role in preventing and controlling diseases. There are several states who formulated their own public health laws and some states amended the provision of their epidemic disease Act to suffice the inefficiency of the Act. The Madras public health Act was the first of its kind in the country. The Himachal Pradesh government mandates the compulsory vaccination in its Epidemic Disease Act, While Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh conferred power on the specific official to execute various provisions of the Acts. The Government of Bihar authorizes themselves to make requests for vehicles during epidemics. Recently states such as Karnataka and Gujarat. Have drafted public health bills where they have put in place a structure for better surveillance while ensuring that citizens are not denied their health right.
In the Epidemic Disease Act the only provision that talks about punishment for violation of regulation under section 188 of Indian Penal Code warrant a revision. It has been found that section 188 of IPC is not able to comprehend justice to al those who suffered from the current COVID-19 outbreak[iii]. The COVID-19 outbreak has posed a unique situation where harassment of the healthcare workforce and others working to contain the spread of the disease has been taking place at all fronts, in various places including even cremation grounds. The existing state laws do not have such a wide sweep and ambit. They generally do not cover harassment at home and workplace and are focused more on physical violence only. The penal provisions contained in these laws are not stringent enough to deter mischief mongering. In this context, the Union Cabinet in its meeting held on 22nd April 2020 has approved promulgation of an Ordinance to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to protect healthcare service personnel and property including their living/working premises against violence during epidemics. The President has given his assent for promulgation of the Ordinance. This ordinance only deals with the above particular issue, still need for amending the disease Act 1897 pertains, Some of the challenges which have been discussed earlier still need to be addressed.[iv]
There is a need to strengthen legal frameworks to prevent and control the entry, spread and existence of communicable diseases in India. The Epidemic Diseases Act 1897, which is more than a century old, has major limitations when it comes to tackling the emergence and re-emergence of communicable diseases in the country, especially in the changing public health context. Over the years, many states have formulated their own public health laws and some have amended the provisions of their epidemic disease Acts. However, these Acts vary in quality and content. Most are just “policing” acts aimed at controlling epidemics and do not deal with coordinated and scientific responses to prevent and tackle outbreaks. There is a need for an integrated, comprehensive, actionable and relevant legal provision for the control of outbreaks in India that should be articulated in a rights-based, people-focused and public health-oriented manner. The draft National Health Bill 2009 is one such proposed legislation, but it is still in its long gestation period and its fate is unpredictable.
[i] The Epidemic Disease Act of 1897. Act No 3 of 1897
[ii] The Epidemic Disease Act of 1897. Act No 3 of 1897 [Cited 3 may 2019] available from; https://nitimanthan.in/blog-posts/blog-niti-manthan/2020/03/28/epidemic-diseases-act-1897/
[iii] Patro BK, Tripathy JP, Kashyap R. Epidemic diseases act 1897, India: Whether sufficient to address the current challenges?. J Mahatma Gandhi Inst Med Sci 2013;18:109-11.
[iv] Promulgation of an Ordinance to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 in the light of the pandemic situation of COVID-19 Cited [3 may 2019] available from https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=202493