Coronavirus – Health and Governance Issues

Explained: Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897

Mains level : Epedimics and their mitiagtion strategies

Till today, at least 60 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in India. So it was decided in a Cabinet Secretary meeting that States and UTs should invoke provisions of Section 2 of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, so that Health Ministry advisories are enforceable.

History of the 1897 Epidemic Diseases Act

  • The Epidemic Diseases Act is routinely enforced across the country for dealing with outbreaks of diseases such as swine flu, dengue, and cholera.
  • 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.
  • In 1897, the year the law was enforced, Lokmanya 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 is one of the shortest Acts in India, comprising just four sections. It aims to provide for the better prevention of the spread of Dangerous Epidemic Diseases.
  • The then Governor-General of colonial India had conferred special powers upon the local authorities to implement the measures necessary for the control of epidemics.
  • Although, the act does define or give a description of a “dangerous epidemic disease”.

Its various sections can be summarized as under:

  • The first section describes all the title and extent, the second part explains all the special powers given to the state government and centre to take special measures and regulations to contain the spread of disease.
  • The second section has a special subsection 2A empowers the central government to take steps to prevent the spread of an epidemic, especially allowing the government to inspect any ship arriving or leaving any post and the power to detain any person intending to sail or arriving in the country.
  • The third section describes the penalties for violating the regulations in accordance with Section 188 of the IPC. Section 3 states, “Six months’ imprisonment or 1,000 rupees fine or both could be charged out to the person who disobeys this Act.”
  • The fourth and the last section deals with legal protection to implementing officers acting under the Act.

Examples of implementation

The act has been invoked several times since independence. Few recent incidents include-

  • In 2018, the district collector of Gujarat’s Vadodara issued a notification under the Act declaring a town as cholera-affected.
  • 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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