COVID 19 and Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897

S Nongpoknganba Meitei *

As on today ( * as on March 24 when this article was published) , COVID 19 has affected 184 countries, killed more than thirteen thousands world wide with more than three lakhs confirmed cases and still counting and in India the confirmed cases has risen near to nearly four hundreds and causing death of 7 people including a foreigner till yesterday and WHO has already characterized the disease as pandemic on 11 March’ 2020.

Though Manipur has no confirmed case till today ( * as on March 24 when this article was published) , it is imperative that the government and the public need to do what is to be done to protect the people from the onslaught of the disease and needless to say we, the public has a serious responsibility to prevent its spread among ourselves.

It is an established principle that if an event is apprehended to generate risks attributable to a large section of society, legal interventions may become a high priority and the precautionary principle states that action should be taken to prevent harm even if some cause-and-effect relationships have not been fully established scientifically—this concept plays a key role in the arena of public health.

The Hon’ble Prime Minister has seriously emphasized on social distancing and many other measures to tackle the issue and our Hon’ble Chief Minister too has among others not only reiterated the same but also has personally visited market places and has interacted with the public to bring awareness about the disease.

However quite unfortunately local people of four schools out of five in Imphal west has blocked the effort of the government to convert the said schools into quarantine facilities. This perhaps might have happened due to lack of awareness by these people about the disease or the legal regime pertaining to such cases.

Now talking about legal regime pertaining to such situation, apart from the International Health Regulations framed by World Health Organisation of which India too is a member, every country has its legal regime to respond to emergent health situation and India has got its own.

The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 is the main legislative framework for the prevention and spread of dangerous epidemic diseases, though there are other relevant provisions of law which we may find in the Constitution, the Indian Penal Code, 1860, Disaster Management Act, 2005, etc.

As the preamble of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 says, it is to provide for the better prevention of the spread of Dangerous Epidemic Diseases, it empowers both the central as well as the state government to take up measures to prevent the spread of any epidemic within its jurisdiction.

The said Act was brought into effect by the colonial ruler to tackle the epidemic of bubonic plague that had spread in the erstwhile Bombay Presidency in the 1890s and the Act has been inherited by Independent India through the Adaptation of Laws and has been invoked several times in Independent India. This time too the Act has been invoked as soon as Covid 19 was characterized as pandemic by WHO.

Thus, under S. 2 of the said Act, the state government, when it is satisfied that the state or any part thereof is visited by, or threatened with, an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease, it may take any measures to prevent the spread of such disease.

Such measures may be anything including the enforcement of a temporary regulations and the establishment of quarantine facilities and putting people in such quarantine facilities.

The only conditions that are required for taking up such measures and enforcement of such temporary regulations are that,
(i) it should be through public notice
(ii) such measures are really necessary for the purpose of preventing the outbreak of the disease or the prevention thereof and
(iii) that the ordinary provisions of the law for the time being in force are insufficient for the purpose of preventing the outbreak or spread of the disease.

Again the most important thing which is worth emphasizing here is that while enforcing such measures or regulations, if any expenses including payment of compensation is to be incurred, the government may prescribe through the public notice who shall defray the expenses.

In other words, it is not necessary that the expenses shall always be incurred by the government and if the government feels with reasonable ground that the expenses has to be incurred because of the fault of an individual or a group of people, they may be required to defray the expenses so incurred while taking up those measures or enforcing the regulations.

It is of course within the wisdom of the state government to decide what measures or regulations may be prescribed in the emergent health situations. However such measures and regulations may apart from others relate to the inspection of persons travelling by railway or any other mode of transport, and the segregation of people in hospital or in temporary accommodation or in any other type of houses which may even include a jail.

However here the segregation can be done only in respect of people who are suspected by the inspecting officer of being infected with any such dangerous epidemic disease. Such extra ordinary power has also been given to the central government in similar circumstances but in respect to inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port in India and in respect to detention thereof, or of any person intending to sail therein, or arriving thereby.

In other words the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 has conferred wide-ranging powers to the state as well as the central governments to enable them to control and prevent the outbreak of epidemic diseases.

Further in order to enable to implement the provisions of the Act, it has further been provided that any person disobeying any regulation or order made under this Act shall be deemed to have committed an offence punishable under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 which means that the disobedience shall be considered as disobedience of an order duly promulgated by public servant and it attracts simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one month or with fine which may extend to two hundred rupees, or with both;

and if such disobedience causes or tends to cause danger to human life, health or safety, or causes or tends to cause a riot or affray, shall be punished with imprisonment which may be rigorous too for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees, or with both.

Therefore we may simply conclude that any disobedience to an order under the Epidemic Act may be considered to attract a penalty of simple or rigorous imprisonment upto six months as the issue dealt by the Epidemic Act relates with epidemic which has high potential of causing danger to public health and life.

Apart from this provision of penalty, the Act also further provides that any person or authority including those to whom the power to enforce such order or measures or regulations has been delegated shall not be held liable in any legal proceedings for any adverse effect that may arises due to such enforcement.

In a nutshell, this Act simply aims at attaining the protection of public health at large even at the cost of few individuals and therefore as responsible citizens we all should dutifully obey all the orders and regulations promulgated under the authority of this Act as not only the disobedience draws penalty but because its obedience is for the benefit of us all.

* S Nongpoknganba Meitei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is Advocate, Manipur High Court
This article was webcasted on March 27, 2020.

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