Explained: The Epidemic Diseases Act Of 1897 That Government Is Using To Fight Coronavirus

Explained: The Epidemic Diseases Act Of 1897 That Government Is Using To Fight Coronavirus

by Swarajya Staff - Thursday, March 12, 2020 06:16 PM IST
Explained: The Epidemic Diseases Act Of 1897 That Government Is Using To Fight CoronavirusDr Harsh Vardhan 
  • Everything you needed to know about the Act that has been invoked to fight the coronavirus.

On Wednesday (11 March), the cabinet secretary announced that all states and union territories should invoke provisions of Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897.

This will make enforceable all the advisories issued by the Union health ministry and state governments from time to time.

The same day, World Health Organisation also officially characterised the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic.

Why was the act passed?

The British government at the time passed the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to tackle the epidemic of bubonic plague in the erstwhile Bombay Presidency in the 1890s.

Empowered by the Act, the colonial authorities searched the homes and checked passengers suspected of plague cases. Forcible segregations, evacuations, and demolitions of infected places were carried out.

The assembly of crowds was prevented, public meetings and festivals were banned and pilgrimages suspended.

Alleged humiliation (including public stripping) of and violence against women gave rise to concerns among the citizens, and riots were reported in some areas.

In many places, military powers were used to ensure the proper implementation of the preventive measures.

There was serious criticism of the abuse of the act from the nationalist quarters.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak was awarded 18 months’ rigorous imprisonment for the criticism of the imperial authorities’ handling of the plague in his newspapers Kesari and Mahratta.

What Section 2 of the Act says

Section 2 states that the State government, when faced with the challenge of an epidemic, can do the following:

  • inspection of persons travelling by railway or otherwise
  • segregation of persons suspected to be infected
  • prescribe temporary regulations to be observed by the public or by any person or class of persons

Section 3 of the Act provides for 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.

Threat of abuse

Historian David Arnold called the Act “one of the most draconian pieces of sanitary legislation ever adopted in colonial India” and Myron Echenberg reported in his book that “the potential for abuse was enormous”.

While it is true that the act gives unbridled power to the state governments, it is important to recognise a crucial difference between 1897 and 2020.

Today we have fully responsible democratic governments in the states.

While the abuse of provisions passed ostensibly in the benefit of the Indians was common in the British Raj, today, there is a distinct possibility, that in order to avoid angering the public, the populist governments shy away from the required epidemic control measures.

Of the countries that are being praised for remarkable control of the outbreak, strict measures have been taken. For example, control on population movement, mandatory thermal check in public places, police officers scouting for suspected infected individuals, checking for possible infected people through CCTV footage, punishing those defying regulations, sharing detailed information about the infected persons to warn others etc.

The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 is routinely enforced in India.

For example, in 2018, after 31 residents of Khedkarmsiya village complained of symptoms of cholera in Waghodia taluka in Gujarat's Vadodara, the district collector issued a notification under the Act.

In 2015, the Act was enforced in Chandigarh to deal with malaria and dengue. The offenders had to pay Rs 500 as fine.

To tackle swine flu in 2009, Pune had invoked the act to open screening centres in in civic hospitals and the disease was made notifiable.

However, a serious drawback of the Act is that it doesn’t provide for specific roles, responsibilities and clear hierarchy, nor a pre-planned format within which to operate.

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