The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 is a law that was first enacted to tackle bubonic plague in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in former British India. The Act has been routinely used to contain various diseases in India such as swine flu, cholera, malaria, and dengue. In 2018, the Act was enforced as cholera began to spread in a region of Gujarat. In 2015, it was used to deal with dengue and malaria in Chandigarh and in 2009 it was invoked in Pune to combat swine flu. Starting in March 2020, the act is being enforced across India in order to limit the spread of coronavirus disease in 2019.
The law is meant for the containment of epidemics by providing special powers that are required for the implementation of containment measures to control the spread of the disease.
Talk about their Provisions
The Act which was enacted for stopping the spread of epidemic diseases empowers both the Central and State Government(s) to take certain steps to restrict the spread of such diseases. The Act, covering simply four sections, is among the shortest in India.
1) Section 2 of the Act empowers State Governments to take special measures and prescribe regulations during the outbreak of an epidemic disease. It states that if the State Government thinks that if other Acts are insufficient for the said purpose, it may take such measures by way of a public notice to prescribe temporary regulations for the public/class of persons to observe. The Regulations mentioned above have been enacted under Sections 2,3 and 4 of the Act.
2) Section 2A of the Act empowers the Central Government to take measures and pass regulations for the inspection of any ship arriving or leaving India and for the detention of any person intending to sail, if the Central Government is satisfied that India or any part of India is threatened with, an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease and the ordinary statutes in force will be insufficient to take appropriate action.
3) According to Section 3 of the Act, any person who disobeys an order or regulation made by the government under the Act shall be punished in accordance with Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (“IPC”). Section 188, IPC imposes punishment for disobeying an order promulgated by a public servant. Disobedience of an order passed by a public servant and “if such disobedience causes or tends to cause obstruction, annoyance or injury, or risk of obstruction, annoyance or injury”, is punishable with simple imprisonment which may extend up to a month and/or a fine of up to Rs. 200. However, if this disobedience “causes or tends to cause danger to human life, health or safety, or causes or tends to cause a riot or affray”, it shall be punishable with imprisonment extending up to six months and/or fine up to Rs. 1,000. Pertinently, violation of the regulations passed under the Act due to the outbreak COVID-19 would attract the latter punishment as it would tend to harm human life, health, and safety.
4) Section 4 of the Act provides protection to public servants from legal action while acting in good faith under the provisions of the Act.
J. Choudhary v The State AIR 1963 Ori 216, the question before the High Court was whether the refusal of the doctor to get himself vaccinated against cholera in accordance with the regulations passed by the State Government would be punishable under Section 3 of the Act. The Orissa High Court answered the said question in the affirmative and held that the intention of the said doctor was irrelevant, his disobedience in itself was punishable under the Act.
Currently on COVID-19
The Bill allows state government and other authorities to take such steps to prevent, control and manage public health emergency, inter alia quarantine persons exposed to such a disease; ban or regulate purchase/transport/distribution of any material containing toxic substance; and disseminate such information as deemed appropriate and take relevant actions including the closure of markets, various institutions and social distancing. The Bill also lists down more than 30 diseases as epidemic-prone diseases such as bird flu, dengue, chikungunya, malaria, kala-azar, etc.