Why the need was felt
The 1896 bubonic plague epidemic of Bombay (now Mumbai), which began in
September that year and gradually spread to most parts of the sub-continent, is
a well-known major event from colonial India. As has been the case with
epidemics, panic and scapegoating formed a major part of the societal response,
and extreme measures dominated the administrative response.
On January 19, 1897, about four months after the plague was identified in
Bombay, Queen Victoria delivered a speech to both houses of the British
Parliament, and in which she said she had directed [her] Government to take
the most stringent measures at their disposal for the eradication of the
A week after Victoria's address, the Epidemic Diseases Bill was introduced in
the Council of the Governor-General of India in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on
January 28, 1897, during an outbreak of bubonic plague, for the better
prevention of the spread of dangerous epidemic diseases. The Member who
introduced it, John Woodburn, recognised that the powers mentioned in the Bill
were extraordinary but necessary, especially that the people must trust the
discretion of the executive in grave and critical circumstances.
The Bill noted that Municipal Bodies, Cantonments and other Local Governments
had extraordinary powers to deal with such situations but felt those were
inadequate. The Government of the day was also concerned that several
countries were alarmed by the situation in India, and Russia had speculated that
the whole sub-continent might be infected. The Bill called for special powers
for Governments of Indian provinces and local bodies, including to check
passengers of trains and sea routes.
It said existing laws were insufficient to
enable Municipal Officers to deal with various matters such as overcrowded
houses, neglected latrines and huts, accumulations of filth, insanitary cowsheds
and stables, and the disposal of house refuse.
How it was passed
The Bill was referred to a Select Committee headed by James Westland. The
Committee submitted its report the very next week, on February 4, 1897, and the
Bill was passed the same day, after a brief discussion. In a chronology that we
are all too familiar with in contemporary India, there was at first a
near-unanimous approval of the British Government for what can be described as
finally doing something for the problem at hand, only to later turn into
disillusionment and rage when it dawned upon people that the cure was worse than
the sickness. The Marathi nationalist leader Lokmanya Tilak was one such
individual: he welcomed the Act at first but later became one of its fiercest
Description of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897
The Epidemic Diseases Act was passed in 1897 with the aim of better preventing
the spread of dangerous epidemic diseases. It evolved to tackle the epidemic
of bubonic plague that broke out in the then Bombay State at the time. The
Governor General of colonial India conferred special powers upon the local
authorities to implement the measures necessary for the control of epidemics.
The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 is one of the shortest Acts in India, comprising
just four sections. The first Section explains the title and the extent, while
the second gives powers to the State and Central Governments to take special
measures and formulate regulations that are to be observed by the people to
contain the spread of disease. The third Section describes penalties for
violating the regulations, in accordance with Section 188 of the Indian Penal
Code. The fourth deals with legal protection to the implementing Officers acting
under the Act.
This Act has 4 Sections in total and is probably the shortest act in India.
There are some powers have been given to the State Government under Section 2 of
this Act and some powers to the Central Government under Section 2 (A) to
implement this Act to control any epidemic.
Provisions in Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897
When the State Government at any time feels that a dangerous epidemic is
spreading in any part of that State or there is a possibility of the same, then;
If the State Government is satisfied that the ordinary provisions of the law for
the time being in force are insufficient for the purpose, may take strict
actions or may empower any person to take, adequate measures by public notice,
so that the outbreak of such disease or the spread thereof, can be checked.
In Section 2b of the same Act, the State Government shall have the right to:
If the Inspecting Officer suspects, that People travelling by rail or port or
otherwise are suffering from an epidemic, shall have the right to keep all such
peoples in the hospital or temporary residence or Quarantine them for some time.
Section 2 (A) of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897:
It states that when the Central Government is satisfied that an epidemic has
spread or is likely to spread in India or any part of it and the Central
Government feels that the ordinary provisions of the law for the time being in
force are insufficient to prevent the outbreak of such disease or the spread
thereof, the Central Government may take some drastic measures which include;
i. Inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port in the
ii. To detain any person intending to sail therein, or arriving thereby, as may
Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897:
This Section has the provision of the Penalty under Section 188 of the Indian
Penal Code (45 of 1860).
If Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 came into force, then
non-compliance of the Government order in relation to the epidemic would be an
offence and the offender shall be punished as per Section 188 of the Indian
Section 4 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897:
This Section provides protection to persons acting under Act stating in clear
and categorical terms that if a person takes any good step to prevent the
outbreak of this disease, then no suit or other legal proceeding shall lie
According to the provisions of Section 2 of the Act, which describes the powers
of the Government:
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 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..
Apart from this, if a person takes any good step to prevent the outbreak of this
disease, then no legal action shall be taken against him.
The Act was executed vigorously to control the plague epidemic that broke out in
the 1890. The powers it conferred were invoked to search for suspected plague
cases in homes and among passengers. There was forcible segregation of affected
persons, disinfections, evacuation, and demolition of infected places. The
assembly of crowds was prevented, public meetings and festivals were banned and
Amendment in Epidemic Disease Act 1897:
Scientific developments have achieved new feats in almost every area of human
and non-human life. Progress in Science and Technology, Education, Health, and
Space Science are the strongest proofs of the same. But along with scientific
development, challenges are coming in new forms. Currently, the entire world is
facing the challenge of Corona Virus outbreak.
The Corona Virus has spread in more than 190 countries and the number of
infected and diseased persons are increasing day by day. That is why every
country and Government is taking various measures to prevent the spread of this
The Ministry of Health, Government of India, decided to implement Sections 2 and
3 of the 123-year-old law Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 on 11th March 2020.
There was 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, had major limitations when
it came to tackling the emergence and re-emergence of communicable diseases in
the country, especially in the changing public health context. While the
doctors, nurses, paramedics and other healthcare personnel, by and large, have
risen to the occasion and are discharging their duties in an exemplary manner,
but violent attacks is a blot on the otherwise laudable performance of
Healthcare professionals faced violent attacks in some areas during their drive
to test people for suspected infection or quarantine them. There have also been
reports that their landlords or neighbours in some cases opposed their presence
claiming they may be carriers of the infection.
After witnessing several incidents of attacks on the Corona Warriors and showing
zero tolerance for violence and harassment against doctors, nurses, paramedics
and other healthcare personnel, the Government has brought out an ordinance to
sharpen the teeth of the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897.
- Now let us know why the Government of India has decided to amend this Act?
Amendments in Epidemic Disease Act, 1897:
The Union Cabinet approved promulgation of an Ordinance to amend the Epidemic
Diseases Act, 1897 to protect Healthcare Service personnel and their property
including living/working premises during epidemics.
The President of India gave his assent to this Ordinance.
Some provisions of this Ordinance include:
- The amendment makes acts of violence, (against Health Workers and other
Medical Staff) as a cognizable and non-bailable offence.
- Commission or instigation of violence against Health Workers shall be
punished with imprisonment for a term of three months to five years and with
fine of Rs. 50, 000/- to Rs. 2, 00, 000/-.
- In case of causing grievous hurt to the Health Workers, imprisonment
shall be for a term six months to seven years and with fine of Rs. 1, 00,
000/- to Rs. 5, 00, 000/-.
- In addition, the offender shall also be liable to pay compensation to
the victim and twice the fair market value for damage of property this
includes living/working premises or car etc.
The brutality of the crime angers society so severely as to inflict a harsh
punishment equal in barbarity. Bringing severity of sentencing for acts of
violence, (against Health Workers and other Medical Staff) while affecting
amendment in the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 was necessitated for deterring the
anti-social elements and criminals. The recent changes in the Epidemic Disease
Act, 1897 would safeguard the life and property of the Health Workers and they
would be able to serve the country better without any fear.
Archbishop Prakash Mallavarapu of Visakhapatnam expressed that:
The Corona Warriors are like angels at this time of emergency, who have put
their duty first, not even thinking of the consequences of dealing with such a
disease, not only putting their lives at risk but their family members as well.
If we don't appreciate them, then we don't even have the right to attack them as
they are doing their duties religiously too.
Written by: Dinesh Singh Chauhan, Advocate, J&K High Court of Judicature,
Email: [email protected], [email protected]