The origin of this Epidemic Disease Act dates back to ‘The Bombay Plague’ that spread in 1890s. This Bubonic plague created commotion across the country under the umbrella of the British Empire. This spread and the ruckus created across the country made the British Empire apprehend a need of an enactment with respect to ex-ante as well as ex-post perspectives to curb down the spread and reinstate peace in the society. This led to the enactment of the Epidemic Disease Act,1897. This act empowered the authorities to search for the plague cases in the homes and places where suspicion arose, it also empowered them to control the plague by use of methods like forced Segregation and social distancing, evacuations and demolition of the infected places.
Since this enactment of the act, it has been invoked many times for example in 2018, the district collector of Gujarat’s Vadodara, declared the village of Khedkarmsiya as Cholera affected by issuing a notification under the act after 31 persons reported positive of the Cholera disease. And now we see at the present time in which the whole country is under lockdown and the act has once again been invoked by the government of the Union of India by asking the states governments/UTs to use the act to fight the pandemic of COVID-19.
Looking at the antiquity of the aforesaid Act of 1897, one must be intrigued to know if the act is efficient enough in its functioning at the ground level after 123 years of enactment. Section 2 of the Act empowers the state governments/UTs to take special measures and formulate provisions to contain the outbreak. Section 3(Penal provision) of the act attracts penalty under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code 1860. There are experts that claim that the act is still capable enough to hold the country together in the outbreak of the COVID-19 after 123 years. There are a lot of powers given to the authorities by this act without any constraint. There is a very famous example of the misuse of this act, In the year 1897 itself the great freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak was imprisoned for 18 months for exercising his freedom of expression in his newspaper ‘Kesari’.
While experts validate the Act, there are many who find the act autocratic. The act does not define the term ‘Epidemic Disease’ the very basic entity on the basis of which it has been enacted. This nebulousness of the term may result into arbitrariness, because ‘Epidemic Diseases’ are only the ones that trigger the implementation of the Act. In such a situation of the outbreak of an epidemic disease, the governments try to increase distance amongst people by taking measures of social distancing like a territorial lockdown or implementation of section 144 of CRPC. Section 4 of the act provides legal security to the officers/agents of the government to work without any interruptions. The ultimate goal of the government is to get rid of the disease spread. And hence there is indeed a very great need of provisions to regulate the distribution of drugs and vaccines of the respective disease, again on which the Epidemic Disease Act 1897 is silent.
Media is considered to be the fourth pillar of the Indian Democracy. And, in times of Epidemic disease’s outbreak, their role becomes all the way more crucial. There needs to be a check on the spread of fake news from sources like Social Media and E-media. The social media platforms spread a lot of fake news as well as information that relate directly to public emotions and sometimes religion. The Epidemic disease act should have guiding provisions for these media outlets to maintain the balance between the Freedom of Speech and Expression as well as a censorship of the fake news. The Hon’ble Supreme court in the recent case of Alakh Alok Srivastava vs. Union of India opined “In particular, we expect the Media (print, electronic or social) to maintain a strong sense of responsibility and ensure that unverified news capable of causing panic is not disseminated. A daily bulletin by the Government of India through all media avenues including social media and forums to clear the doubts of people would be made active within a period of 24 hours as submitted by the Solicitor General of India. We do not intend to interfere with the free discussion about the pandemic, but direct the media refer to and publish the official version about the developments.”
In this lockdown, because of the Covid19 outbreak we are facing a lot of challenges like inadequate health facilities, strangling down of the country’s economy, unemployment etcetera. All these problems need to be addressed legally by the enactment of rules and regulations which will help the country to overcome such a havoc situation and will preserve the Constitutional Values of the country at the same time. The Act is colonial in nature. There are no references of limitations on the actions of the respective authorities, which instigates some very important questions – ‘Will the Human Rights be preserved?’, ‘Will there be any ethical boundary of the concerned authorities?’, ‘How will the constitutional values be preserved?’.
The Law Commission Report under Justice A.P. Shah considered this act under ‘Central acts identified for re-enactment or review thereof’. The P.C. Jain Commission has recommended for its repeal at Sl. No. 133 of Appendix A-1 (166 Central Acts recommended for repeal). The Committee has deliberated on the repeal of this Act and feels that it needs to be re-enacted in view of today’s socio-economic context.
There is a need of overhauling of the aforementioned act to cater the needs of the people by the inclusion of elementary and fundamental requirements that are vital to contain an epidemic disease outbreak like in the contemporaneous situation in the case of COVID-19, with respect to the today’s socio-economic context and also at the same time preserving the country’s Constitutional Values.
 The Epidemic Disease Act,1897.
 Law commission of India, Report of the committee to identify the central acts which are not relevant or no longer needed or require repeal/re-enactment in the present socio-economic context, Report no. 248th (5th November 2014) available at https://www.pmindia.gov.in/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Extracts-of-the-Committee-of-the-Report-Vol.I-.pdf?query
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Advait Mishra is a first-year undergraduate law student at Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur (C.G).