Epidemic Disease Act, 1897: Features and Limitations

It is probably for the first time in our lifetime that we are witnessing the 123 years old Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 getting invoked by the Indian government to contain the COVID-19 outbreak in India.

Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020

The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 has been passed in April 2020 to amend the Epidemic Disease Act, 1987.

Backdrop of the Ordinance: Several incidences of stigmatization and ostracization of healthcare professionals have been reported in the recent past amid the outbreak of COVID-19. This has also led to violence and physical attacks on healthcare professionals and damage to property. Thus, this ordinance has been brought in order to control the prevailing issue and provide our healthcare professionals with a safe environment to perform their duty.

Objective of the Ordinance: To protect the healthcare service personnel and property during an epidemic or pandemic.

Important features of the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020

1) Violence under the ordinance: It emphasises on zero tolerance against any form of violence towards the healthcare service personnel and damage to property during the epidemic or pandemic like situation. Violence under this ordinance includes harassment and physical injury and damage to property.

2) Penal Provisions: The penalty introduced for offence under this ordinance are as follows:

Offence Penalty
Commission or abetment of acts of violence under this Ordinance Imprisonment for a term of three months to five years, and with fine of Rs.50,000/- to Rs.2,00,000/-
Grievous hurt imprisonment shall be for a term six months to seven years and with fine of Rs.1,00,000/- to Rs.5,00,000/
Damage of Property (In addition) twice the fair market value for damage of property to be paid as compensation to victim
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3) Investigation of Offences: An officer of the rank of Inspector shall be investigating offences under this Ordinance within a period of 30 days.

4) Period of Trial: A trial under this ordinance has to be completed in one year. The trial can be extended by the court nevertheless reasons for such an extension has to be recorded in writing.

5) Healthcare Professional: All public and clinical healthcare service providers including doctors, nurses, paramedical workers and community health workers are considered as healthcare professionals. Further, the term also includes any person who is empowered under the Epidemic Diseases Act to take measures for prevention of the outbreak of the disease or its spread thereof. Additionally, any person declared as a healthcare professional by the State Government through issuance of a notification in the Official Gazette is also included.

History & Objectives of the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897

This colonial era legislation was passed to confront the bubonic plague epidemic. The epidemic had broken out in the state of Bombay during the last decade of the 19th century. The Act confers special powers in the hands of local authorities for the implementation of essential measures to vigorously control the epidemics.

Salient features of the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897

  • The Epidemic Diseases Act is one of the shortest legislation of India. It comprises of only four section.
  • The first section explains the title and the extent. It would be interesting for you to know that this Act is not applicable to the former state of Jammu & Kashmir (now divided into two union territories). In the year 1977, the then state of Jammu Kashmir enacted a separate Epidemic Disease Act of 1977.
  • Section 2 of the Act confers powers to the union and state governments. Governments can use these powers to take special measures and formulate regulations to contain the spread of disease.
    • Section 2A empowers the Central government to inspect any ship leaving or arriving at any port and for detention thereof, or of any person intending to sail therein, or arriving thereby.
  • Section 3 describes penalties for violating the regulations, in accordance with Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant). As per Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, an offense under the Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 may attract six month imprisonment or 1,000 rupees fine or both.
  • Section 4 deals with legal protection to the implementing officers acting under the Act. As per this section, no suit or other legal proceeding can be initiated against any person for anything done or in good faith intended to be done under this Act.
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Limitations of the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897

The Act has remained in a dormant state almost always since India’s Independence. But now when it has been invoked during the coronavirus pandemic, due consideration must be given to amend those provisions of the Act which can facilitate potential abuse of power. For example, Section 4 of the Act provides complete cover to implementing officers performing their duties in accordance with Act. It may turn out to be draconian if there exist no checks and balances.

The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 needs to undergo significant change considering the modern changing scenario. In the era of globalization, world has become interconnected and the reliance of one country on another has increased significantly. The COVID-19 outbreak in itself is a live example. Thus, it is high time that the Act undergoes a change incorporating the modern day possibilities and scope to control the outbreak of any epidemic disease.