With more than 6,500 deaths reported worldwide and more than 130 cases being reported in India due to the massive outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, The Government of India has asked states and Union Territories to invoke provisions of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, so that Health Ministry advisories are enforceable. The Epidemic Diseases Act was introduced during the British era to tackle the epidemic of bubonic plague that broke out in the erstwhile state of Bombay.

India has witnessed many large outbreaks of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases in the recent past. The outbreak of a cholera epidemic due to the O139 strain in 1992, that of plague in Surat in 1994, the large-scale spread of chikungunya and dengue fever, and that of avian influenza (H5N1) and pandemic H1N1 influenza were some of the infections which caused widespread havoc. The resurgence of diphtheria, and the outbreaks caused by the Nipah, Chandipura and Japanese encephalitis also posed a threat to the country’s public health in the last decade. As in any other country, diseases with the potential for international spread, such as Ebola virus disease and Zika virus, also pose threats to the public health security of India.

Legal frameworks are important during emergency situations as they can delineate the scope of the government’s responses to public health emergencies and also, the duties and rights of citizens. In recent years, many states in India have invoked various provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 in order to empower the states to take all measure and precautions to tackle the widespread of the degasses.

The act aims to provide for the better prevention of the spread of dangerous epidemic diseases. Under the act, temporary provisions or regulations can be made to be observed by the public to tackle or prevent the outbreak of a disease. It empowers state governments/UTs to take special measures and formulate regulations for containing the outbreak.

Section 2A of the Act empowers the central government to take steps to prevent the spread of an epidemic. It allows the government to inspect any ship arriving or leaving any post and the power to detain any person intending to sail or arriving in the country.

Section 3 provides penalties for disobeying any regulation or order made under the Act. These are according to section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant). Section 4 gives legal protection to the implementing officers acting under the Act. It also empowers the state to prescribe such temporary regulations to be observed by the public or by any person or class of persons as it shall deem necessary to prevent the outbreak of such disease or the spread thereof.

The state may determine in what manner and by whom any expenses incurred (including compensation if any) shall be defrayed. The State Government may take measures and prescribe regulations for the inspection of persons traveling by railway or otherwise, and the segregation, in hospital, temporary accommodation or otherwise, of persons suspected by the inspecting officer of being infected with any such disease. It also provides penalties for disobeying any regulation or order made under the Act. These are according to section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant). It also gives legal protection to the implementing officers acting under the Act.

Previous cases of implementations

In 2009, to tackle the swine flu outbreak in Pune, Section 2 powers were used to open screening centers in civic hospitals across the city, and swine flu was declared a notifiable disease. In 2015, to deal with malaria and dengue in Chandigarh, the Act was implemented and controlling officers were instructed to ensure the issuance of notices and challans of Rs 500 to offenders. In 2018, the district collector of Gujarat’s Vadodara issued a notification under the Act declaring the Khedkarmsiya village in Waghodia taluka as cholera-affected after 31 persons complained of symptoms of the disease.

(Author works with the Research & Communications team at SDC Foundation. He tweets at stoic_gautamkr