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The Epidemic Disease Act, 1857 – Is it still relevant?

The following article studies the background of The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 in brief. Later the study moves to the relevance of the act in the status quo. This study also presents the recent amendment in the act and later on tries to study the loopholes and suggesting the amendments in the act so that it can be used in the present time without any lacuna.

Introduction

The Epidemic Disease Act was passed in the year 1897. The aim of the act was to prevent the spread of “dangerous epidemic diseases”. This particular act came into effect in the colonial era to tackle the bubonic plague that broke out in the then Bombay State of India at the time.

The Epidemic Disease Act is one of the shortest Acts in India as it contains only four sections. The first section explains the title and the extent of the act, the second section gives special powers to the state and central government to make regulations/rules so that the spread of the disease could be stopped. The third section depicts punishments for disregarding the guidelines, as per Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. The fourth arrangements with legitimate security to the executing officials acting under the Act.

Why we talking about Epidemic Disease Act is because it is the one which Indian Central and State governments are using to combat novel coronavirus and to reduce its spread. This 123–year–old act has been used in the past time when there was an outbreak of swine flu, malaria, cholera, etc. The importance of the act has increased in the past two months after India faced the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic and governments used this act which enables it to ask schools and lager institutions to stop functioning or to ban public gathering or to issue the notice to the companies to adopt work from the home model.

But, the question is whether all these activities come under the purview of the act? Does the act define the things in itself or is there a need for amendment? Is the 123 old act relevant right now? Are the penalties in the act sufficient? Before dwelling into the lacunas of the act or the desired amendment let’s look into the recent amendments made in The Epidemic Act 1897.

Amendments in the Act

Recently, there have been many cases of attack on healthcare personnel in cities like Indore where the health workers went to the slum area for collecting samples and were attacked by a mob. A similar case happened in the southern city of Bengaluru where the health workers were attacked as they went door to door checking people for symptoms. And in New Delhi, one doctor was assaulted by a shopper at a local fruit market. Many similar cases were reported in different cities across the country. These attacks made the government approve the promulgation of Ordinance on 22nd April 2020 to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to protect healthcare service personnel and property including their living/working premises against violence during epidemics.

The ordinance made changes in the penalty to attack health workers. The new amendment incorporates heavy fines for any sort of brutality against health worker and detainment as long as 7 years. The offence has additionally been made a non-bailable offence and cognizable. The examination in such cases will be done within 30 days. For the case of grievous injuries to the healthcare workers, the blame can confront detainment extending from a half year to 7 years. They can likewise be penalised with a fine running from Rs 1-5 Lakhs. This amendment is a great initiative taken by the government to safeguard health care workers which were earlier not under the purview of the act.

Loopholes and Suggestion of Amendments

All the loopholes or the suggestions of amendments which are given below will ensure that there is a misuse of powers by the authority nor by the citizens. In 1897, for instance, freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak was imprisoned for 18 months under this Act for his newspaper Kesari‘s anti-establishment coverage of the plague.

  • Archaic form of Law
    The Epidemic Act is a 123-year-old act and was made at the time when everything was in a limited form i.e. transportation, trade, globalisation, immigration, etc. It is very difficult for such an old act to work in such a technologically advanced society. Now, the priorities have changed and the working of the government has also changed. The boundaries have changed a lot after the act. The factors or reasons leading to the spread of a disease have changed a lot over the years. The problem with the act is that it is so old that makes it difficult to adapt to the status quo.
  • No definition clause
    The act is so small that it has not defined those words or phrases which are important to decide the ambit of the act or, to interpret the laws. The most important word which is not defined in the act is ‘dangerous epidemic disease’. There is no clear definition of what will be considered a dangerous epidemic disease. Whether the disease is considered as dangerous epidemic disease on the basis of severity or on the basis of magnitude or on the basis of how many people are affected or on the basis of any guideline provided by WHO or what? Hence, it is necessary to have a definition clause that could define the words used in the act which would, later on, avoid any misuse of law and will help in interpreting the act in a better way. Adding a definition clause will also make the act more transparent.
  • Section for the formulation of a committee
    A section should be added for the formulation of a committee that will work when there will be an outbreak of pandemic and the role of this committee will also be defined in the act itself. The work of the committee will be to form a team which scholars, scientists, doctors who will try to find vaccines or drugs or will find a way out from the outbreak. Another job that should be given to this committee is to provide reliable and true data or statistics related to the epidemic. The data provided by the committee will be government authorised. This particular role of the committee is necessary so that there is no spread of false news.
  • Illness reconnaissance and coercive notification
    In India, the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, requires clinical experts to advise the general wellbeing to the authority about anyone with a transmittable sickness and reveal the character of the individual. Notification is fundamental for acceptable observation and to get a thought regarding the weight of ailment in the network, as this aids in arranging, actualizing, and assessing programs for the control of the malady. It should be made obligatory for the population to get a check-up if they’re facing any symptoms so that they can be cured beforehand. The amendment should be made in the act and the obligation should be made on the population to get their check-ups done and fine should be imposed on those who try to evade such tests.
  • The Epidemic Diseases Act from a rights point of view
    The Epidemic Diseases Act is absolutely administrative in nature and comes up short on a specific general wellbeing of the population. It doesn’t portray the obligations of the legislature in forestalling and controlling pandemics. The Act underlines the intensity of the administration, yet is quiet on the privileges of residents. It has no arrangements that think about the individuals’ advantage. Individuals’ centredness is tied in with thinking about individuals’ needs, wants, values, social conditions and ways of life, and cooperating to create proper arrangements. The Act is additionally quiet on the moralistic viewpoints or human rights that become possibly the most important factor during the reaction to an epidemic. Individual autonomy, liberty, and privacy should be respected to the greatest extent possible, even during the enforcement of laws. It would have been acceptable if the Act expressed unmistakably the circumstances under which the specialists may diminish the self-rule, protection, freedom, and property privileges of the individuals. Utilizing a reasonable procedure in such circumstances would guarantee that officials settle on unprejudiced choices and would likewise assist in decreasing the community’s misperceptions. Instead of containing clear official directions, the Epidemic Diseases Act is pretty much like a direction record. It doesn’t make reference to any logical advances that the administration needs to take to contain or forestall the spread of malady.
  • Uniformity should be brought
    Numerous states defined their own public health laws and many corrected the arrangements of their Epidemic Disease Act. The Madras Public Health Act was passed in 1939. This was the first of its sort in the nation. The legislature of Himachal Pradesh remembered arrangements for mandatory inoculations for its Epidemic Diseases Act, while Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, and Chandigarh gave controls on explicit authorities to execute different arrangements of the Act. Bihar enabled the state government to make demands for vehicles during plagues. While it is true that the priorities of the states are different, the platform of common law for combating an infectious disease that the states should work on should be the same. There are instances in which different parts of a state are following two different public health acts. For example, the southern districts of Kerala follow the Travancore-Cochin Public Health Act, 1955, while the northern districts follow the Malabar Public Health Act, 1939. Municipal Acts in different states vary in quality and content, and many are vague about the measures to be taken during the outbreak of a disease. Most of the public health Acts in the states are “policing” Acts, intended to control epidemics, and do not deal with coordinated and scientific responses to prevent and tackle outbreaks. Recently, many states, such as Gujarat and Karnataka have drafted public health bills which seem promising, as they have put in place a structure for better surveillance while ensuring that citizens are not denied their health rights. The problem with different states having different laws breaks the uniformity and the epidemic doesn’t see where it going, in which state.

Hence, the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 should be amended in such a way that it remains uniform throughout the country.

Conclusion

There is a need to fortify legitimate structures to forestall and control the passage, spread, and presence of communicable diseases in India. The Epidemic Diseases Act 1897, which is extremely old, has significant restrictions with regards to handling the development and reappearance of communicable diseases in the nation, particularly in the changing public health context. Throughout the years, numerous states have detailed their own public health laws and some have altered the arrangements of their Epidemic Disease Act. Be that as it may, these Acts fluctuate in quality and substance. Most are simply “policing” acts planned for controlling pandemics and do not deal with coordinated and scientific responses to prevent and tackle outbreaks. There is a requirement for a coordinated, far-reaching, significant, and applicable legitimate arrangement for the control of outbreaks in India that should be articulated in a rights-based, people-focused, and public health-oriented manner.

Submitted by Tanishka Jangid

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