Which law is enforced in India to combat Covid-19?

Epidemic and Disease Act 1897

It’s been more than 70 years that India achieved Independence from British rule however, some acts and laws from the colonial time are still rooted in India. Though many statutes have been scraped out in bulk recently, few statutes render its relevance to modern-day India. One such pre-independence act which is enforced in recent times to fight against the deadly coronavirus is Epidemic Disease Act. The act was enacted 123 years ago. Thanks for the visionary of the legislators to having had it framed such that it can be tailored to the most recent needs of the society.

This act was enforced in 1897 for better prevention and control of deadly epidemic diseases. It was revoked for the first time in India to fight the bubonic plague in Bombay during the colonial period. Since then, the act has been used to fight against many epidemic diseases that threatened India such as swine flu, cholera, dengue, and malaria.
The act equips the Government by providing special powers required to contain the pandemic. The act has been routinely revoked in India from the late nineteenth century till date to control various epidemic diseases.

Amendments till 2020 [1]

The act has undergone amendments in its application for the below regions of India:

  • In Punjab by Epidemic Disease Act (Punjab Amendment) Act, 1944
  • In Central Provision and Berar by C.P and Berar Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Act, 1945
  • It was applied to the whole of Madhya Pradesh by M.P Act 1958
  • It has been extended to apply for the transferred territories of Punjab-by-Punjab Act 1961
  • Applied to Dadra and Nagar Haveli from 1965
  • Applied to Lakshadweep from 1967
  • Applied to Union Territory of Pondicherry from 1968
  • The act does not apply for the region of Bellary as it has been repealed by Mysore Act 1955

By the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance 2020, the act has been amended to include provisions for penalizing those who attack front line workers.

Provisions under the Act

The act accommodates various needs of the executives by giving them special power through its provisions under the below sections:

2. Power to take special measures and prescribe regulations as to dangerous epidemic disease [1] –

Whenever the State is threatened by the outbreak of any pandemic this Act under its section 2 gives the power to the State Government to take special actions to control the spread of the disease. Such measures must be notified to the public for their observation.
The section also empowers the authority by giving special provisions to inspect any person traveling by any means of transport across the borders of India or within the country. The suspected persons can be isolated and admitted in hospitals or accommodated temporarily in Government monitored places.

2A. Powers of Central Government [1] –

Under this sub-section, the power is extended to the Central Government to take temporary measures to tame the spread of epidemic diseases throughout India.

2B. Prohibition of violence against healthcare service personnel and damage to property [1] –

Promulgates that no person shall act in a way that violates the safety and security of health care personnel or cause damage to their property during the pandemic.

3. Penalty [1] –

Penalises every person violating the regulations under the Act as though they have disobeyed the order of a public servant. This provision is enforced by invoking IPC section 188. Punishment for such an offense would be imprisonment with a term not less than three months and may extend to five years. Fine is also imposed on the offender which may vary between 50000 rupees to 5 lakh rupees.
If the offender causes grievous hurt to the health care personnel discharging their duty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term between 6 months to 7 years and a fine between 1 lakh rupees to 5 lakh rupees.

4. Protection to persons acting under Act [1] –

No person will be liable to suit or legal proceedings for any act done in good faith under this act.

Invocation of the Act to battle Covid-19 in India

The head of WHO characterized the coronavirus as a pandemic. Following the announcement, on March 11, 2020, in the meeting organized by the cabinet secretary, it was decided to invoke the Epidemic Disease Act 1897 to battle against the novel coronavirus in India.
The Ministry of Health in its meeting advised all the state and union territories to invoke section 2 of the Epidemic and Disease Act so that all the time-to-time regulations being issued by the Ministry of Health Welfare or State or Union Territories are enforceable at their respective territories.

How is the 123-year-old colonial law relevant in fighting against the novel coronavirus?

The Epidemic and Diseases Act is one of the shortest Act in the Indian legislatures. Nevertheless, it is overarching in its legal framework providing provisions for battling against any epidemic disease. Constitutional experts also hold the opinion that it is not necessary to repeal or amend the Act solely because it has been around from the colonial era. As the old proverb goes “Advice after an injury is like medicine after death” to fight against the novel virus India needed ready to go law that would accommodate for the temporary regulations to be made. Section 2 of the Act makes room to take temporary measures to prevent the outbreak of the pandemic.

When the law was enforced in March 2020 the pandemic was ratcheting up and had taken 2 lives already in the country. The Epidemic Disease Act with amendments made effective from 22 March 2020 was the best in action law-remedy to battle the threat of coronavirus in India. The act ensured timely instructions made by the health ministry to be disseminated and enforceable.

The Act provides legal backing for the State to forcefully quarantine people who are suspected of being infected by the disease. It empowers the authorities by giving them provision to inspect any vehicle, goods, or vessels being suspected of coronavirus carrier within the territories to which this Act extends.

Protection for Corona Warriors-

As the nation witnessed the gruesome attacks on corona warriors including doctors, health care workers, paramedical staff, policemen, sanitation workers, and other service volunteers the Union Government did not wait but quickly amended the Epidemic Disease Act 1897.

The ordinance provides for imprisonment and penalty against any attack or misbehaviour made with medical professionals, health care workers, and other personnel recognized as corona warriors. The ordinance ensures zero-tolerance against crimes causing bodily damage or damage to the property of corona warriors.

The Government has announced offense of causing harm to health care personnel and any other individuals working to fight the battle of coronavirus shall be deemed as an offense punishable under IPC section 188. The punishment is made stricter by extending the term of imprisonment to seven years and fine up to 5 lakh rupees.

Lockdown and Curfew –

The term ‘Lockdown’ refers to the restriction of free movement of people and vehicles in the territory identified by the Government. However, it still permits the movement of essential items. Lockdown is not a legal action and hence doesn’t require legal backing for its enforcement. Nevertheless, the Epidemic and Disease Act makes it actionable by the authorities under sections 2 and 2A.

Though the act may seem a violation of fundamental rights mentioned in the Constitution under Article 19 (b) (c) (d) (g) the exception to Article 19 i.e. 19 (3) (4) (5) (6) provides the legal framework to impose any law violating the fundamental rights but in the interest of public health and welfare.

Lockdown in India was enforced on 24 March 2020 following the voluntary 14-hour curfew on 22 March 2020. The lockdown was unlocked in piecemeal and had its effects nationwide till 30 May 2020 and from then on it was enforced only in the containment zones.

The Indian Penal Code provides the mechanism for imposing lockdown under the below sections:

  • Section 188 – Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant. [2]
  • Section 269 – Negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life. [2]
  • Section 270 – Malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life. [2]

‘Curfew’ in common terms can be understood as the exercise of power by the law-enforcing authorities. This power is provisioned to the authorities under Section 144 of The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. The section reads as “Power to issue order in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger” [3]

Quarantine and Isolation –

Though these terms are not defined in the Epidemic Disease Act, the Act under section 1 (d) refers to the Indian Ports Act 1908, The Aircraft Act 1934, and The Land Ports Authority of India Act 2010 [1] for the definitions.
Barely the meaning of quarantine can be understood as the separation of suspected but not ill people or things from others to prevent the spread of the virus. While isolation refers to the separation of ill and virus carriers from the rest to prevent the spread of the virus.
Section 2 and 2A of the Epidemic and Disease Act provides for the quarantine and isolation of people and goods though not defined expressly.

Disaster Management Act 2005

While the Epidemic Disease Act 1897 provides a legal framework for the management of any pandemic, the Disaster Management Act 2005 renders the legal framework for the management of any catastrophe. The Disaster Management Act aims to prevent disasters, mitigate the risks of disaster, and to provide a remedy for the affected.

The Act has 3 levels of authorities acting under it, the primary being the National Disaster Management Authority, the secondary being the State Disaster Management Authority, and the tertiary being the District Disaster Management Authority. All three authorities will act in disaster prevention and risk mitigation under their respective levels.

This Act came in handy to manage the outbreak of Covid-19 in India where it was declared by the home minister as a “notified disaster”. The Act is better equipped to manage the “unforeseen” as it lays out the policies and procedures to be followed as an action plan during any disaster. As it is important for the Nation and the States to have financial aid to respond to the unforeseen mishaps the Act has the provision to use the disaster funds. The funds reserved for this purpose is called the National Disaster Mitigation Fund.

It is interesting to note that the Disaster Management Act in its Section 54 provides a measure to control Fake News about the disaster in social media which may lead to the panic of the public. The section imposes a punishment of imprisonment up to 1 year or with a fine.

Some lacuna in the Epidemic Disease Act and Disaster Management Act making them less effective –

  • The Epidemic Disease Act is deficient in defining the basic term ‘Epidemic Disease’. This gives room for misunderstanding as the diseases under this act are abnormal.
  • The Epidemic Disease Act lacks in providing legal backing for shut down of entire nation and various other restrictions such as curfew, the prohibition of social gatherings, etc. It gives vacant space for the law-enforcing authorities to decide for themselves which existing law to apply for the restriction on unnecessary movement of people.
  • Both the Epidemic Disease Act and Disaster Management Act do not provide the provision for the storage and distribution of vaccines and other medications.

Conclusion –

It is clear from the above points that the Indian legislation system did not find the need to bring in emergency law to tackle the covid-19 pandemic but invoked the combination of existing laws to quickly respond to the situation. The various provisions of the Epidemic Disease Act, Disaster Management Act, Indian Penal Code, and the Criminal Procedure Code came in handy when the outbreak emerged rapidly. Though these laws are not ill-equipped to battle against the coronavirus pandemic some of the serious drawbacks provide an opportunity to update the laws.

References –

Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, A1897_03.pdf (indiacode.nic.in) (13/12/2020)
Indian Penal Code, The Indian Penal Code (indiankanoon.org) (13/12/2020)
Code of Criminal Procedure,1973, The Code Of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (indiankanoon.org) (13/12/2020)
Parliament of India (23 December 2005). “Disaster Management Act, 2005, [23rd December, 2005.] NO. 53 OF 2005” (PDF). Ministry of Home. (13/12/2020)

External Links –

Centre invokes ‘Epidemic Act’ and ‘Disaster Management Act’ to prevent spread of coronavirus – The Hindu BusinessLine
To protect corona warriors, UP set to bring ‘stricter’ ordinance – lucknow – Hindustan Times
Lockdown is not Coronavirus: The legal framework behind lockdown, curfew, and quarantine (barandbench.com)
The legal hole in battling Covid-19 – analysis – Hindustan Times


Deepashree G