HISTORY AND NEED OF THE EPIDEMIC ACT
Around September 1896, one case of Bubonic Plague was detected in Mandvi (then in Bombay Presidency) now in Gujarat. Bombay Presidency was even then one of the most densely populated areas due to rapid growth of commerce there. The plague epidemic spread rapidly due to constant inflow of population; legend has it that there were almost 1900 reported deaths per week during the spread of epidemic. India, then under the rule of Queen and British Parliament, had to act swiftly to prevent the plague from spreading to rest of India. It was then that the Epidemic Act 1897, was enacted by the British Parliament to curb in the spread of plague.
SPECIAL PROVISIONS OF THE EPIDEMIC ACT1
The Epidemic Act consists of a total four sections, which are amended time to time as and when required. The significant provisions of the Act are as under:
Section 2 of the Act provides with the special provisions for regulations to be imposed by the government at the time of any dangerous epidemic disease. This provision gives powers to the State Government if it is satisfied that any part of the state is affected by or threatened to be affected by outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease and if the government feels that there are no measures in the ordinary provisions of law to deal with the said epidemic, the State Government may take following measures for the safeguard of the public at large which shall be temporary in nature in order to prevent the outbreak of such a disease:
- To inspect the person travelling.
- Segregation of people suspected of being diagnosed with the disease in hospital, or temporary accommodations or otherwise.
Section 2A empowers the Central Government to inspect ships and vessels leaving or arriving in the territories of India and also empowers the government to detain such vessels if required.
Section 3 provides with the penalties for disobeying the regulations made by the government under section 2 and 2A. The punishment for such disobedience shall be the same as Section 188 of Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Section 188 of IPC provides for minimum punishment of 1 month and maximum for 6 months and/ or fine of Rs.1000/- shall be meted out to the person who is in violation of the regulations/notification of the government.
Section 4 protects the government and its employees and officers from any prosecution, civil or criminal, for doing anything in good faith.
LIMITATIONS OF THE ACT AS OF TODAY
The Act is more than 120 years old, enacted by the then British Parliament to curb a situation that arose only in one part of undivided India i.e. the Bombay Presidency. The real motive of the British Parliament behind the said act can be doubted for a simple reason that, the Act was misused by the British officers to arrest and confine public gatherings led by the freedom fighters.
The object of the Epidemic Act is more for prevention of the spread of the disease not to curb or eradicate the disease which has already started to spread. The Act does not define the term epidemic or disease. The Act does not give specific measures or directions to the government to follow at the time of an epidemic. The Act simply empowers to prescribe general temporary notifications/regulations if it thinks that the epidemic cannot be controlled by the existing laws of land.
The Epidemic Act does not give any guidelines for formation of a special committee or a disaster management team which can act upon the emergency in a prescribed and precautionary manner without waiting for the state government to act after considering other factors of the state.
The Act does not provide measures for isolation of the suspected patients and isolation centres. There should be provisions directing the state governments to build isolation centres in all hospitals and housing societies to be used as isolation centres at the time of epidemic.
The Act is silent on the part of how the vaccines and drugs can be distributed by the government. As the Act is silent on all these aspects it leaves no ground for the public at large to hold the government responsible for any kind of negligence on the part of the government in the court of law as there is no proper mechanism on which the government can act on. The provisions give the liberty to the State Government to prescribe temporary regulations which can be more of trial and error rather than being rigorous measures to control the epidemic.
THE ACT VIS-À-VIS COVID-19
Many states and union territories including Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat, Assam, Delhi have issued notifications under the provisions of the Epidemic Act. The states even after imposing certain restrictions under this Act are struggling with the isolation of people and stemming the spread of the disease as there are no specific provisions in the Act which can guide the State Governments to act in a prescribed manner at the time of crises during the spread of epidemic. The Act is more than a century old, when the organisations like World Health Originations and United Nations were not even established. The Act lags behind in implementing the guidelines issued by these originations time and again. In India, there are several laws enacted by the Parliament on public health which are not addressed under one single enactment or law. It is the need of the hour for the legislature to amend the century old law in order to be ready for any kind of epidemic. National Health Bill 2009 is still pending to be enacted. The National Health Bill, which, if enacted can have a very positive effect to take appropriate measures during the time of the epidemic. With COVID-19 crisis of today, our legislature should consider and understand the difficulties faced by the government today and accordingly enact a new and an effective legislation.
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