The emergence of Corona Virus in 2019 led to one of the darkest years of the century. The world experienced massive deaths, economic standstill, and the ground shaking reality of lack of medical and health care facilities. ‘Precaution is better than cure’ and with no vaccine the only way for the ‘welfare state’ to protect the citizens was to implement a national lockdown. This led to the invocation of the provisions of Section 2 of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 in the Cabinet Secretary meeting.
Epidemic Diseases Act: Historical Significance
The act was first introduced by the colonial government in 1897 to tackle Bubonic Plague that spread throughout Bombay Presidency and was called an Epidemic. The act empowered the colonial government with the unprecedented power to search suspected plague cases with forcible segregation and demolitions of infected places.[i]However, the act led to subsequent dishonoring and harassment of women in public and private spaces in other to ‘check them up’ which led to the Plague Riot of Kanpur in April 1900 which revolved around the issue of women’s honor.[ii]The Act of 1897 has been routinely used for controlling diseased like swine flu, malaria and dengue. The act was used in 2009 in Pune to combat Swine Flu, in 2015 it was used in Chandigarh to control the spread of dengue and malaria and in 2018 in Gujrat in order to combat cholera.[iii]
About the Act
The key features of the Epidemic Diseases (amendment) ordinance, 2020 include the definition of the healthcare service personnel who are at the risk of contracting with the virus while carrying out their duty. It states that an ‘act of violence’ includes causing harassment, harm, injury, hurt or danger to life or obstructing the healthcare personnel in discharging his duty. It empowers the central government to regulate the inspection procedure of ships and vessels arriving in the country and the detention of the person intending to travel by port during an outbreak. Further, the amendment increases the power of the government to regulate transportation by any train, bus, ship, aircraft or vessel arriving or leaving the territory of India. It also gives the power to the government to detent any person suspected of the virus[iv]
. It should be understood that these measures are important during a pandemic because due to globalization, the travelling and trade has increased immensely and in order to control the widespread of the virus it is important to control the movement in and out of the country.
Implementation of Lockdown under the Act
On March 2020, the national lockdown was imposed on India for 21 days which has been continuing for 141 days now. A lockdown is a state of isolation or restriction on access instituted for security measure. The lockdown imposed a curfew on the people under the Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance in order to contain and control the spread of the virus in India. Three lockdowns have been announced so far. The World Health Organization categorized the outbreak of the virus as an epidemic which meant that the imposition of lockdown was necessary. The lockdown was challenged in the courts as livelihood of people was being taken away, there was an economic standstill and human rights of the labors were being violated. However, the Delhi High Court dismissed the petition against lockdown.
Lockdown is not a new concept; various lockdowns have been imposed and India over the years. Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance does empowers the central and state governments to impose a lockdown in citizens when necessary but there are other provisions in the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Disaster Management Act,2005 which can impose lockdown or curfew. Under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Government can impose a curfew on the citizens when there is sufficient ground and immediate prevention, or speedy remedy is desirable[v]
. Further in the case of Gulam Abbas v. State of U.P.[vi]
, the Supreme Court held that in case of a conflict between public interest and private rights the former must prevail.The hon’ble court, in the case of Madhu Limaye[vii]
, held that S.144 must be imposed in a situation where there is sudden emergency and the consequences sufficiently grave.The spread of COVID-19 led to a situation of medical emergency where it is necessary to control the contamination of other people. It is the responsibility of the state protect its citizens.
Comparative analysis of Legislation in pandemic between UK and India
The United Kingdom enacted its Coronavirus Act, 2020 which is a comprehensive legislation covering all the aspects in connection with COVID-19. It includes emergency registration of healthcare professionals, closure of educational institutions, proceeding in courts, restrictions on gatherings, punishment and compensation during the pandemic. [viii]
In India, there is a lack of implementation of a comprehensive legislation to combat the pandemic which has affected the world. However, according to the recent amendment in the epidemic act, Contravention of the provisions of the act is punishable with imprisonment between three months and five years, and a fine between Rs 50,000 and two lakh rupees. In case of an act of violence against a healthcare service personnel causes grievous harm, the person committing the offence shall be punished with imprisonment between six months and seven years, and a fine between one lakh rupees and five lakh rupees.[ix]
Therefore, it was necessary for India to invoke the Act of 1897 as under the provisions of Crpc, the punishment and the compensation mechanism to combat crime during a pandemic was not enough. Hence, as mentioned above the imposition of lockdown during a situation which is unexpected is necessary. However, India should have passed a comprehensive legislation which looked into the rights of the various migrant workers who faced violation of their human rights.
[i] Legal Provisions During Lockdown, Available at: https://blog.nextias.com/legal-provisions-during-lockdown, Last Accessed : 11th August 2020
[ii] How the Epidemic and Diseases Act of 1897 Came to be, Available at: https://thewire.in/history/colonialism-epidemic-diseases-act, Last accessed: 11th August 2020
[iii] A 123-year-old Act to combat coronavirus in India; experts say nothing wrong, Available at: https://www.livemint.com/news/india/a-123-yr-old-act-to-combat-coronavirus-in-india-experts-say-nothing-wrong-11584182501707.html, Last Accessed: 12th August 2020
[iv] The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, Available at: https://www.prsindia.org/billtrack/epidemic-diseases-amendment-ordinance-2020, Last Accessed: 12th August 2020
[v] Section 144(1) Code of Criminal Procedure
[vi] Gulam Abbas v. State of U.P. AIR 1981 SC 2198
[vii] Madhu Limaye v. S.D.M.., Monghyr AIR 1971 SC 2486
[viii]India needs to enact a COVID law, Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/india-needs-to-enact-a-covid-19-law/article31529036.ece, Last Accessed:12th August 2020
[ix]The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, Available at: https://www.prsindia.org/billtrack/epidemic-diseases-amendment-ordinance-2020, Last Accessed: 12th August 2020
Image Credits https://images.app.goo.gl/EU5Twpr2TTxjpMop7