THE EPIDEMIC ACT, 1897: A LAW IN DISGUISE

It is often wondered by a layman when he hears a new legislation and questions its reason of implementation or even the enactment. It is always considered to reduce the number of legislation enacted by our parliament as it creates confusion and chaos within the system and the jurists.

But it clearly feels different during such a time of pandemic named COVID-19 which portrays the importance of one of these act. As the name suggests, The Epidemic Act, 1897 was enacted more than a century ago keeping in view the importance of combined forces to defeat these pandemics. The law was enacted during the end of Nineteenth Century when the plague which was brought from Hong Kong to British India killed about 10 million people in India. The Act which was enacted only contained four sections. It came to the notice only when the ongoing outbreak of pandemic COVID-19 came in our country across borders.

The Act is more of a declaration, which empowers the Central and State Government for the time being, enact or empower any person to take such measures and prescribes the temporary regulations through public notice to contain the outbreak of the disease. These provisions are embedded under Section 2 of the Act which reads as under:-

“Power to take special measures and prescribe regulations as to dangerous epidemic disease.—(1) When at any time 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, the [State Government], if [it] thinks that the ordinary provisions of the law for the time being in force are insufficient for the purpose, may take, or require or empower any person to take, such me asures and, by public notice, prescribe such temporary regulations to be observed by the public or by any person or class of persons as [it] shall deem necessary to prevent the outbreak of such disease or the spread thereof, and may determine in what manner and by whom any expenses incurred (including compensation if any) shall be defrayed.   

(2) In particular and without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing provisions, the [State Government] may take measures and prescribe regulations for

(b) 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.”

This indeed empowers the Central and the State Government to appoint any individual to assist in such situation and control the outbreak using his expertise knowledge. It also imposes penalty on any person disobeying the regulations and orders imposed during that time frame and shall be punished as per Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The penalty is specifically mentioned under Section 3 of the Epidemics Act, 1897. Moreover, it also protects the person who is appointed by the authorities under this Act, against any suit or other legal proceedings for anything done in good faith or with good intention as per the provisions of this Act.

          The only question which needs to be asked in the current situation is that whether the century old colonial rule is capable enough to empower and drive us out of this unforeseen circumstance of COVID-19 or there is a need to have another look on the Act and bring about necessary changes with respect to current positioning. It is still a debatable issue that whether such act, which is carrying an important aspect within itself in the current outbreak is enough to counter this challenging situation. Does this colonial regime rule carry enough firearms within itself which can accomplish the need of the hour?

          This act surely carries a number of deficiencies within itself which act as a limitation for the authorities to perform. The first issue which raises the eyebrows of this Act is the positioning of the Act which empowers a single personal supreme authority to enjoy. It surely suggests that such power can be misused at great highs, without even leaving room for questioning or any scrutiny, thereby handing over supreme power which was the way of British Rule. The second barrier in the Act faced due the present scenario is the outreach of the pandemic. The Epidemic Act, 1897 was enacted during the Colonial Rule keeping in mind the epidemic between two neighboring countries. It was never anticipate for a mass outbreak throughout the world as in this situation. The third limitation of the Act is the narrow view of the Act with respect to the provisions. It is to be understood that India since having a Federal Form of Government need a centralized legislation which could cover all the territory of the country rather than decentralized resource allocation. The Forth limitation which might also have a crucial role now-a-days is not proposing and implementing a complete Act. It is important to define and reflect the important terminologies as used by the legislation within its ambit. The Act is completely silent on this issue and does not enlarge the definitions of the important aspects and leaves it to the wisdom of the judges, jurists and legislatures.

          Even when we talk about the recent amendment to the Act which was promulgated by the President by the powers conferred as per Article 123(1) of the Constitution of India, it still does not provide a complete satisfaction which is a need for the hour. The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 tends to amend and insert the act of violence against the health care workers as a punishable offence with severe punishment under this ordinance. It is indeed necessary to bring about stricter punishment against the people committing violence against the healthcare workers who are basically the first line of defence is case of epidemic and causing grievous hurt to the healthcare individuals as per Section 320 of Indian Penal Code, 1860, thereby punishing them with imprisonment for minimum of 6 months which may extend to 7 years along with fine not less than one lakh rupees which may extend to 5 lakh rupees. The ordinance fails to encounter other important provisions with respect to guidelines which must necessarily be brought upon in order to limit the early chaos and have a controlled system in advance along with transparency.       

The reason for the amendment of the Act is evident as it fails to evaluate the situation and deliver a solution to the Government and leaves everything upon the administrative authorities to enact and implement accordingly. The Colonial era legislation surely requires necessary amendments to make it more suitable and reliable to the present structure and situation. The reason for the deficiency is not because of its enactment but due to the spread or outbreak. Because of this unprecedented chain of events, where more than 10 million people around the globe are getting affected and this graph is still in its upward direction, an Act which carries a number of limitations cannot persuade and assist any administrative authority. There is a need of a robust law which helps in controlling and also entrusting the authorities with adequate power and control in order to smooth the process and functioning of the country without much distress to the citizens.       

Written by Shravan Chadrashekher, Associate, H.K. Law Offices  

Published by meghachaturvedi

Associate Partner, H.K. Law Offices

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