IS THERE A NEED FOR AMENDING THE EPIDEMIC DISEASE ACT 1897?
Author: Harsha Sadhwani, II year of B.A.,LL.B. from Lloyd Law College
The epidemic is defined as anything that affects or tends to affect a disproportionately large number of entities within a population, community, or region simultaneously as according to Merriam-Webster dictionary. In the later phase of the nineteenth century, Bombay (now called as) Mumbai was stricken with an epidemic of bubonic plague, caused by the bacterium (Yersinia pestis) which led to the killing of thousands of its citizens and caused great havoc in the city back then. Consequently, many citizens flew away from the city to save themselves which led to a massive decrease in the population of the city. It was during this time that the parliament enacted The Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 to deal with the epidemic, it failed to prevent it and the plague further affected the Bengaluru region as well. This act which was drafted pre-independence has experienced no alteration or amendment since then, it has been 123 years. There have been myriad changes in the living patterns of the people, in technology, in food consumption patterns, in scientific advancements and transportation facilities in the past so many years. It would be illogical and inappropriate for such an outdated law to hold significance in today’s scenario.
The centuries-old Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 which is a one-page long act of 4 sections does not even define what an epidemic is, leave alone telling the different measures to deal with it. The Union government has recently advised the state to invoke this act because of the ongoing epidemic of Coronavirus and has thus used this act to impose lockdown and mandatory screening of the citizens. The first section of the aforementioned act talks about the name and the extent of this act as to what all parts of India does it cover. The second section talks about the power which the state could authorize in case it thinks that the ordinary provisions are insufficient to deal with the outbreak of the pandemic. The state could take special measures and could prescribe regulations for the time being by the issuance of public notice. It could also inspect a person travelling by railway or otherwise or anybody on whom there is suspicion of potentially carrying that disease. It also gives power to the central government to inspect ship vessel leaving or arriving at the port.[i]
The given law only talks about checking ships or vessels but fails to bring to notice the increasing international travel by air, it has no mention of migrating workers which in the present epidemic scenario of coronavirus causing a lot of problems. Due to the lockdown and increased harsh restrictions, migrating laborers are facing a lot of difficulties as they have been subjected to limited working conditions and health facilities. There are no provisions in this act that could deal with this issue. Such problems are bound to arise in situations of epidemics and it's high time that the government should do something in this regard.
A Delhi-based lawyer named Pratik Patnaik pointed out that law in the Epidemic Disease act of 1897 comes from a time when the constitution was not even drafted and there was no concept of fundamental right and that this act in its current form seems to violates it as restricting the rights of citizens to enter India (or making it problematic) is not only a denial of fundamental right but also the right to health care. It was also called “pre-constitutional law by him because the power could only be used by the Centre and the state without parliament having any look at it.[ii] There has to be some uniform framework that tells its citizens that under what conditions a state can take away right and also the duration of the same should be specified/told. There also needs to be the provision of providing basic amenities (food, water, sanitation and personal entertainment) while their freedom is taken away. Perhaps there should be reasonable restrictions but in an objective manner which is very much lacking in the act.
Section third of the Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 talks about the punishment which is to be given if the public fails to comply with the orders and rules of state and Centre under this act. The punishment under this act is on equal footing with section 188 of the Indian Penal code[iii], which says, a fine of amount 200 would be imposed along with imprisonment of one month for violating an order of public servant. The penalty of the amount of 1000 and imprisonment of six months can also be imposed depending upon the impact of disobedience. [iv]According to various legal experts, this section of punishment needs to be revisited because the nominal fine of 200 along with the excess punishment of one-month imprisonment is absurd.[v]
There is also an absence of provision of scientific steps that the government ought to take to control the epidemic which is of utmost importance. The epidemic named coronavirus that the entire world is facing right now could not be ceased only due to a lack of scientific advancements. Had there been provisions in the act to invest more funds in science or steps that could be taken towards this, the situation could have been a whole lot better. However, there has been an attempt to replace the laws with various bills brought before the parliament but none of them has been approved yet. For instance, there was the National Health Bill, 2009 which had a better legal framework by providing a provision of essential public health service by recognizing health as a fundamental right. But this was disapproved as states considered it as an intrusion on their domains. There was also the introduction of the draft of the public health bill 2017 that addresses the scientific change in the world like dealing with bio-hazardous material and bioterrorism. It almost covered every possible outcome of the epidemic and defined them clearly along with providing measures to deal with them as well. It has not been tabled in the parliament and is under the law ministry’s consideration. Indian need such a law to tackle the ongoing situation in a better manner.
It is established how a century-old law fails to reflect the realities of the spread of disease in the modern world. The answer to whether The Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 needs an amendment is a big and absolute YES, keeping in view all the flaws that have been mentioned in this. The laws of the other counties such as that of Canada, Australia, England and the US in this regard have had time to time changes and clarity. The parallel bills that have been brought before but have not been approved yet is a clear indication of the need to update our laws too to comply with our citizens first and then with the rest of the world. The epidemic Disease Act of 1897has a bare-bone legislative structure. Especially the chaos and the circumstance that coronavirus has created, provides for an opportunity to update our laws.
[i] The Epidemic Disease Act of 1897.
[ii] Swagata Yadavar and Apoorva Mandhani, Modi govt is using two laws to tackle coronavirus spread, The Print, 23 March 2020, https://theprint.in/theprint-essential/modi-govt-is-using-two-laws-totackle-coronavirus-spread-but-oneof-them-needs-changes/386052/.
[iii] INDIAN PENAL CODE, sec. 188.
[iv]The Epidemic Disease Act of 1897.
[v]Manish Tiwari, The legal hole in battling Covid-19, Hindustan times, 19 March 2020, https://m.hindustantimes.com/analysis/the-legal-hole-in-battling-covid-19/story-sovFHssIu68NO1oHs5LgDI.html.