An otherwise redundant British-era law has got a new life due to the spread of coronavirus. The authorities in Panchkula have invoked a 1918 Act to control the movement of public during the ongoing lockdown. The law allows temporary deployment of civilians for patrolling within the villages and says they will be deemed to be public servants.
The Punjab Village and Small Towns Patrol Act was enacted in the erstwhile Punjab in June 1918 for performance of night patrol duty in case of emergency by the people living in villages. The law allows the Deputy Commissioner of a district to pass an order for performance of patrol duty in any village. Following the DC’s order, the village panchayat has to forward a list of “able-bodied adult male inhabitants” for patrol duty. While the method of selection is to be determined by the district administration, the panchayat has to select the persons.
While the Act provides only for night patrol, the Deputy Commissioner, Panchkula, has passed one such order on March 27 under Section 3 of the Act and declared that all able-bodied adult male inhabitants of all the villages in Panchkula will be liable to perform patrol duties at day time and night time “with a view to keep a watch on person entering the villages without valid passes” and also to see that villagers are maintaining social distancing norms. However, Section 7 of the Act allows the Deputy Commissioner “generally to regulate and control all matters relating to patrol duty”.
Many of the provisions in the Act may seem unrealistic today like – a person can be exempted from the patrol duty only after an order from the Deputy Commissioner; a person can also offer a substitute for the duty. The village panchayat can impose a fine not exceeding five rupees on any person who has failed to perform the assigned duty. The Deputy Commissioner can impose a fine of Rs 100 on any village for failure to provide in performance of the patrol duty. Proviso to the Section 11 (1) reads, “Provided that before imposing any fine under this section, the Deputy Commissioner shall give ten days’ notice by beat of drum or otherwise to the village, and shall consider any objections that may be received by him.”
However, the law also seems to extend unbridled powers to those on patrol duty. Section 13 of the Act says that every person is bound to render to a person on a patrol duty all the assistance which he is bound to render to a police officer and every person on patrol duty shall be deemed to be a public servant for the purposes of the Indian Penal Code.
It would not be the first time that the law has been used in Haryana or even Punjab. There are instances where the law has been invoked in recent years. The District Administration, Ludhiana and Jalandhar, in 2015 had ordered holding of night patrols to stop the incidents of desecration of Guru Granth Sahib. Kaithal district administration in 2018 had passed an order under the Act to check burning of paddy straw and earlier this year to curb incidents of theft and robberies.
In 2016, the Delhi-based public policy think tank Centre for Civil Society in 2016 published a list of 30 laws and recommended their repeal. The 1918 Act was one among them. “The existence of an organised police force renders this Act redundant. Further, it is impractical in the modern context to impose patrolling duties on villagers, since public security is the duty of the state,” the CCS said in its report. The Act was repealed in Pakistan in 1970.
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