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Explained: Govt invokes Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to fight coronavirus; what is it?

The Epidemic Diseases Act is routinely enforced across the country for dealing with outbreaks of diseases such as swine flu, dengue, and cholera.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: March 12, 2020 9:24:57 am
Explained: Govt invokes 1897 Epidemic Act to fight coronavirus; what is it? At a government school in New Delhi on March 11, 2020. (Express Photo: Amit Mehra)

On Wednesday (March 11), it was decided in a Cabinet Secretary meeting that states and Union Territories should invoke provisions of Section 2 of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, so that Health Ministry advisories are enforceable.

At present, at least 60 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in India. Around the world, more than 119,100 people have been infected and nearly 4,300 have died, according to a Reuters tally of government announcements.

The Epidemic Diseases Act is routinely enforced across the country for dealing with outbreaks of diseases such as swine flu, dengue, and cholera.

History of the 1897 Epidemic Diseases Act

The colonial government introduced the Act to tackle the epidemic of bubonic plague that had spread in the erstwhile Bombay Presidency in the 1890s.

Using powers conferred by the Act, colonies authorities would search suspected plague cases in homes and among passengers, with forcible segregations, evacuations, and demolitions of infected places.

Historians have criticised the Act for its potential for abuse.

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In 1897, the year the law was enforced, freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak was punished with 18 months’ rigorous imprisonment after his newspapers Kesari and Mahratta admonished imperial authorities for their handling of the plague epidemic.

Provisions of the 1897 Epidemic Diseases Act

The Act, which consists of four sections, aims to provide “for the better prevention of the spread of Dangerous Epidemic Diseases.”

Section 2 empowers state governments/UTs to take special measures and formulate regulations for containing the outbreak. It reads:

“Power to take special measures and prescribe regulations as to dangerous epidemic disease.—

(1) When at any time the State Government is satisfied that the State or any part thereof is visited by, or threatened with, an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease, the State Government, if it thinks that the ordinary provisions of the law for the time being in force are

insufficient for the purpose, may take, or require or empower any person to take, such measures and, by public notice, 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, and may determine in what manner and by whom any expenses incurred (including compensation if any) shall be defrayed.

(2) In particular and without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing provisions, the State Government may take measures and prescribe regulations for—

(b) the inspection of persons travelling 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.”

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.

Examples of implementation

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.

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.

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In 2009, to tackle the swine flu outbreak in Pune, Section 2 powers were used to open screening centres in civic hospitals across the city, and swine flu was declared a notifiable disease.

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