Suggested Amendments to the Epidemic Diseases Act and Disaster Management Act in light of COVID-19

COVID-19 has taken an uncontrollable toll in the world as well as the country. To control the disastrous effect of the virus, the country has been put under a continuous series of lockdowns and measures like quarantine have been taken. We still have not been able to contain the virus wholly form spreading. In this article, we will look into the powers of the government to enforce such measures during a pandemic and changes in these laws with respect to COVID-19. The Indian government has enforced two legislations to impose measures for prevention of coronavirus, namely, the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 [EDA] and the Disaster Management Act, 2005 [DMA]. The first part of this article will deal with the changes in the archaic Act of 1897, and the latter part will focus on DMA and the scope for its reforms.

The EDA is one of the smallest legislations, drafted in the pre-independence era and currently in full-blown force. The Act intends to give extra power to the state and central governments to ensure the prevention of an epidemic.[1] When EDA was being legislated upon, taking into consideration a pandemic like COVID-19 was out of the question. This Act dealt with those diseases that are now curable, and vaccines are available for almost all of them. Thus, devising measures for preventing a disease caused by an infectious virus is not a part of this four-section legislation and hence, the need for bringing reforms arises.

Beginning with section 1 of the EDA which defines the extent of the Act for “the whole of India except the territories which, immediately before the 1st November, 1956, were comprised in Part B States.”[2] It is evident that the last amendment happened in the year 1956, and since then, there has been a considerable change in the inter-state borders of the country. The latest of such change was brought in August 2019 which divided Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories.[3] This legislation intends to widen the extent of the Constitution of India as well. Thus, it is impertinent that archaic legislations like EDA get amended according to the present state division of the country.

The next section deals with providing power to the state to take measures when “the State or any part thereof is visited by, or threatened with, an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease”.[4] The Act does not define the meaning of “dangerous epidemic disease” nor does it give any context as to what is included in the above term. The act was drafted for preventing the plague and is now enforced to prevent a deadly virus-caused disease. Thus, it is necessary to legislate on the definition of “dangerous epidemic disease” to understand the enforceability of the Act. A definition or explanation of an epidemic as dangerous depending on the magnitude and severity of the problem, stating other factors like death rate or potential to spread is crucial.[5] Furthermore, an explanation for terms like lockdown and quarantine, which have been used all over the country by everyone, is also advisable. These measures would bring clarity to the implementation of EDA during the spread of COVID-19 if this epidemic was deemed to be dangerous as per the definition.

Section 2 in continuation empowers states to take measures for preventing an outbreak and allow for determination of the expenses incurred. Two noteworthy changes that need to be brought here- first, concerning the legal implementation of the measures that can be imposed, and second, legislating on provisions to introduce transparency to the system. The Act currently provides for taking “such measures” as deemed necessary but there are no further specific guideline on what response measures can be enforced nor is there any defined limits of such measures. Particularly for COVID-19, a legal model for availability and distribution of vaccine and drugs, provisions for furthering medical aid and accommodation, for the promotion of cleansing ventilation and disinfection, are necessary to guard against the spread of the disease.[6] Rules about transparency are a part of several foreign legislations which improves the functioning of the system. It also helps in building up the trust of the people toward its government. Further, this transparency should not be limited to releasing the count and details of the patients; it can also extend to making information public regarding accounts like The Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund).

Section 2 also allows for the inspection of people, but this is limited to people travelling via the railways. It is evident that a century ago the latest means of travel were not so conventional and thus, understandably restrictions should be extended to people travelling by air as well. Similarly, when Section 2A mentions a ‘ship or vessel’, it should be extended to including various personal and public modes of transport, ranging from motorcycles to trucks to aircrafts. There is also a need to extend the emergency powers based on the current issues being raised. Issues like availability of food, relief camps, movement of migrant labourers, the entitlement of statutory minimum relief, arranging livelihoods to daily wagers, etc. that are currently troubling thousands across the country need special attention.[7] Foreign legislations based on epidemic emergency contain provisions pertaining to use and disposition of property, regulating the distribution of available essential goods and services, establishing emergency shelters and hospitals, etc.[8]

Section 3 of the EDA talks about punishment for disobeying any regulation or order made under this Act.[9] The penalty is under Section 188 of Indian Penal Code , i.e., imprisonment up to six months or fine up to Rs. 1000.[10] Provisions for a stricter punishment should be legislated to block off the public from disobeying orders like lockdown and quarantine. Community service provisions can be brought up as this will not only serve as a punishment but also be a help for the community in tough times. This could also extend to giving local authority and police officers powers of entering any premises for superintending the execution of any such regulations issued by the government.[11] These changes, if brought in the EDA, will help make appropriate legislation for a pandemic like COVID-19.

The other legislation that is imposed by the government to deal with the pandemic is the DMA. This is one of the newest legislations in the country and is hence more exhaustive while covering various aspects of managing a disaster.[12] Government has enforced DMA with the assumption that the current pandemic is inclusive of the definition of the term ‘disaster’ in Section 2(d) of the Act. It gives a broad definition of disaster, including occurrences from natural or human-made causes leading to substantial loss of life and suffering.[13] This definition does not directly include epidemics or pandemics but is not limited to cyclones and tsunamis making it the reason behind it being brought into force. The Supreme Court of India held that it is the obligation of the government to provide for adequate health facilities for its citizens.[14] Our current medical facilities include testing kits and hospitals, but a disaster like COVID-19 suggests something more than DMA to help cope with the losses. DMA allows for Disaster Management Plans [DMP] at the national, state and district level, thus providing for a systematic redressal mechanism. Such plans are general and not specialized for a particular type of disaster, and therefore, various changes need to be brought to such programs to make it suitable for COVID-19. First and foremost, the broad guidelines and general recommendations in the DMPs should be defined. Such provisions should be refined in order to make them sharper directives and prescriptions.[15] States should be given more power regarding state funds for reducing the risk of disaster, demonstration projects, raising awareness and training.[16] There have always been contingencies on devising mechanisms to aid the funding and financing of the government. Focusing on methods to contribute to local financing and involving non-governmental institutions are highly recommended to reduce the risk of disaster. Some state DMPs have rules for public-private partnerships where collaboration exists between the private sector and a local body to help manage the situation. Such a model was adopted by Gujarat using Surat Climate Change Trust, which could, and should, be studied and replicated.[17] Increased participation of various scientific institutions and non-governmental organizations with the government to train nodal officers can also be helpful.[18] Collaborations with think tanks, policy centres, technical institutions at the state and central level and universities would help track the risk of losses. These institutions can also help in providing data and knowledge about, say, the coronavirus and its growth rate in the Indian climate, which would help us tackle the disaster.

Data which is publicly available through census should be categorized to understand the vulnerability of various sections of the population and how prone the rest of the country is to the disease.[19] This segregation of data to identify who is at risk from the disaster helps analyse data to avail them better protection and also prevent future threats and risks. Making the entire system transparent should be the focus of such changes. Increasing access to warning systems and disaster risk assessments to people should be substantially focused upon. It should also be ensured that verified and reliable information is spread to the masses and spread of fake news is curbed as far as possible. This information can prove helpful in saving the lives and assets of others. It is also pertinent to note that such information should reach the most vulnerable people in the country, in this case the migrants and labourers.[20] These measures and changes can be brought to the DMPs to ensure that the plans remain effective in times when the country is struck by an unforeseeable disaster.


[1] The Economic Times, The 123-year-old law that India may invoke to counter coronavirus, Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/the-123-year-old-law-that-india-may-invoke-as-more-and-more-coronavirus-cases-emerge/articleshow/74593639.cms (Last Accessed: May 18, 2020).

[2] The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 (Act No. 3 Of 1897), Section 1 [‘EDA’].

[3] The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, 2019.

[4] EDA, Section 2.

[5] P.S. Rakesh, The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, Available at: https://ijme.in/articles/the-epidemic-diseases-act-of-1897-public-health-relevance-in-the-current-scenario/?galley=html (Last Accessed: May 20, 2020).

[6] Public Health Act, 1875 (United Kingdom), Section 134(3).

[7] M.P. Ram Mohan, Jacob P. Alex, COVID-19 and the ambit of the Disaster Management Act Available at: https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2020/04/26/covid-19-and-the-ambit-of-the-disaster-management-act.html (Last Accessed: May 18, 2020).

[8] Canada Emergencies Act, 1985 (Canada), Section 8(1).

[9] EDA, Section 3.

[10] Indian Penal Code, 1860, Section 188.

[11] Public Health Act, 1875 (United Kingdom), Section 137.

[12] Guha-Sapir, D., Hoyois, P. and Below, R. (2014) Annual disaster statistical review 2013: The numbers and trends. Brussels: Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters Available at: http://reliefweb.int/report/ world/annual-disaster-statistical-review2013-numbers-and-trends (Last Accessed: May 20, 2020).

[13] The Disaster Management Act, 2005 (Act No. 53 of 2005), Section 2(d).

[14] Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity v. State of West Bengal, 1996 SCC (4) 37.

[15] Aditya Bahadur, Emma Lovell & Florence Pichon, Strengthening disaster risk management in India: A review of five state disaster management plans, Available at: http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/file/Strengthening%20disaster%20risk%20management%20in%20India.pdf (Last Accessed: May 19, 2020).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority, Mainstreaming gender in disaster risk reduction’. Gandhinagar: Government of Gujarat, Available at: http://www.gsdma.org/ key-projects-programmes/mainstreaminggender-in-disaste-risk-reduction.aspx (Last Accessed: May 19, 2020).

[18] Supra note ADITYA.

[19] Ibid, at 32.

[20] Carabine, E., and Jones, L. (2015) ‘Early warning systems and disaster risk information’. Briefing: Target 7. London: Overseas Development Institute. Available at: http://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/9478.pdf (Last Accessed: May 18, 2020).

Soumya Gupta from West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.

Editor: Sanskriti Sood

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