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How Is Amendment In Epidemic Disease Act 1897 Helpful In Tackling Attack On Corona Warriors?

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 pestilence.

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 critics.

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 country.
ii. To detain any person intending to sail therein, or arriving thereby, as may be necessary.

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 Penal Code.

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 against him.

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 pilgrimages suspended.

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 pandemic.

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.

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:

  1. The amendment makes acts of violence, (against Health Workers and other Medical Staff) as a cognizable and non-bailable offence.
  2. 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/-.
  3. 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/-.
  4. 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, Jammu.
Email: [email protected], [email protected] 

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