The Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19 which was declared as a ‘Pandemic’ by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March has caused unexpected damage to human health and welfare beyond imagination. It has caused a great downfall to the World Economy, which has affected all kinds of people from rags to riches sparing nobody, quite evident that the world has come to a standstill however, the extent of the ramifications caused is still unclear. With the death toll crossing 2,70,000 worldwide and more than 1800 in India, quarantine and social distancing is the only possible way to reduce the impact. Quarantine and travel bans have been imposed. India too has taken effective measures and has subjected people to legally enforceable quarantine or self-quarantine. The Central Government of India has invoked the Disaster Management Act (DMA) 2005 and Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 which is a colonial-era law. This article will give an overview of these acts and whether they are helping the Central and State Governments to impede the phenomenal growth of the virus.
2. Disaster Management Act, 2005.
The object and purpose of the act are to efficiently manage disasters which includes preparation, mitigation strategies, building capacity and more. The COVID-19 outbreak has been included as a “Notified disaster” and as a ‘critical medical condition or pandemic situation’ by the Central Government. The present overall National Lockdown was imposed under the Section 6(2)(i) of the DM Act as per order dated 24-03-2020 with an object to establish measures ensuring social distancing so as to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus disease. A minimum standard of relief is offered to disaster affected persons under section 12 and 19 of the Act to alleviate social sufferings. This also includes relief in repayment of loans or grant of fresh loans on concessional terms under section 13 of the Act. The Government of Tamil Nadu has accordingly announced a Rs.3280 crore special relief package which includes Rs.1000 cash assistance to rice ration card holders while all card holders would get essential commodities such as dhal, rice and sugar free of cost. Section 35 of the act states that the Central Government has the powers to take measures. Specifically, section 65 expounds that for ‘rescue operations’, the National Executive Committee, State Executive Committee, or District Authority, may authorize using resources of private persons too. Sections 51 to 60 of the Act lay down penalties for specific offenses. Anyone found obstructing any officer or employee from performing their duty will be imprisoned for a term which may extend to one year or fine, or both. The Ministry of Health and Family welfare has given the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority to increase the availability and control the pricing of face masks, alcohol-based hand sanitizers, surgical masks and gloves. Due to such exceeding demand for pharmaceutical commodities, few middlemen and counterfeiters are taking full advantage of the pandemic and producing goods which are fake and are of low quality. Around 12,300 fake N95 masks were seized in Bengaluru by raiding the warehouse of a firm in Eastern Bangalore. On further investigation it was found out that the firm had already sold around 70,000 fake N95 masks worth Rs 1.05 crore and was lobbying to win a government contract for 10,000 N95 masks. Section 53 of the DMA provides punishment for misappropriation of money and materials; for such persons who are entrusted with a job to provide relief in a threatening disaster or situation instead, misuse the situation for their own good and are punishable with imprisonment for a term of two years also with fine.
Spitting in public places has become has a punishable offence. This has been done by the Union Home Ministry in its revised guidelines under DMA. Spitting has been made punishable with a fine under Section 51(b) of the Disaster Management Act under the consolidated revise guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Section 67 of the Act enables the government to direct the media to give any warning or advisories regarding any threatening disaster situation. Further Section 54 of the Act makes the circulation of false alarm provoking panic which is a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment up to a year. Various State Governments in addition to the Disaster Management Act, have invoked the Epidemic Diseases (ED) Act and various state specific Public health Acts such as Tamil Nadu Public Health Act, 1939, Kerala Epidemic Diseases Ordinance, 2020. Maharashtra along with the ED Act has invoked Maharashtra Essential Services Maintenance Act, the Mumbai Nursing Homes Registration Act and the Bombay Public Trust. These legislations were invoked with an intent to cut treatment costs at private hospitals for people without medical insurance in Maharashtra.
3. Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 along with Penal Provisions which are enforceable.
This Colonial-era law which was invoked by the Central and State governments is a special law empowering the government to prevent the outbreak of treacherous pandemic by adopting special measures and stringent policies. The definition of ‘lethal’ or ‘infectious’ or ‘contagious diseases’ is not given in the entire legislation which is a major drawback. The Act contains four provisions and gives the Central and State Governments to declare any region or a specific area as threatened and take precautionary measures for containment such as screening of travellers, inspection of vessels, special wards affected persons which the Government is carrying out effectively. Section 3 states that persons disobeying the regulations issued under the Act will be a punishable offence under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. Sec 188 of the IPC deals with the offence of “Disobedience to order duly promulgated by a public servant”. However, any act done in good faith is not an offence under Section 4. Section 2A of the Act authorizes the Government to take measures or prescribe regulations for the inspection of any ship or vessel arriving at any port in the territory to which the extends to. Section 269 of the IPC deals with negligent actions that may spread infection of any disease which threatens human life and is punishable with imprisonment up to six months and/or fine. Section 270 enforces punishment for malignant actions that may spread any dangerous disease to life and offenders are punishable up to two years imprisonment and/or fine. Section 271 of IPC establishes punishment for disobeying quarantine rule which may extend up to six months and/or fine. It is feared that the regulations impact many aspects of the fundamental rights of individuals. Even though the test of legitimate aim as laid down in the Puttaswamy judgment, is satisfied by the Act as its function is to prevent the spread of dangerous epidemic disease, the law allows for delegated legislative powers to the states not defining specific proportionate regulations for a novel infectious disease in a parent law. There is no guarantee against misuse/abuse of power by the State.
However, few Constitutional specialists felt that there is no need to amend the act if the Government is able to restrain the outbreak of the pandemic with the execution of this Act. Since there are increasing attacks and assaults on healthcare workers who are battling COVID-19, the Central Government on 22nd April has promulgated an Ordinance to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act which makes it a cognizable and non-bailable offence to attack them. Any person who indulges in an act committing violence against a health care worker shall be punished with imprisonment of 3 months up to 5 years and a fine ranging from Rs.50,000 to 2 lakhs. In a case of a very serious attack, the imprisonment may range from 6 months to 7 years and a fine ranging from Rs.1 lakh to 5 lakhs.
The invocation of both these Acts has been restraining the spread of the coronavirus rapidly in our country. Even though the Epidemic diseases act confers encircling powers to the Central and state governments, this piece of legislation does not provide a comprehensive legal framework or epidemic preparedness and a strong response is required instead of the current fragmented framework through programmes and missions. The Epidemic diseases act was enacted to battle the outbreak of the bubonic plague in Mumbai during the British rule in 1897 and was later applied to fight diseases like malaria, cholera and swine flu. But 123 years later the situation is very much different as it is a global pandemic and looking at the sweeping death rates, the enforcement of the act feels like dusting an old cloak.
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