“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver”. -Mahatma Gandhi
Health is the state of physical and mental well-being. However, many a times this state of well being comes under the peril of diseases. COVID – 19 has, so far, infected more than 60 lakh people in the world and is the reason for mortality of more 3 lakh people. The world’s prolonged battle to subjugate the disease has led to governments enacting and implementing measures like curfews and lockdowns. Laws were also enacted and amended to implement these measures for safeguarding public health.
The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 came in force on 4th of February, 1897. As the year suggests, the legislation was enacted by British colonisers to curb and counter diseases which occurred during their reign in the Indian Subcontinent.
History of the legislation
The legislation is 123-years-old which was enacted 1897 and was brought in to deal with the pandemic of COVID-19. It was enacted by the Imperial Legislative Council to prevent the spread of bubonic plague in the presidency of Bombay. However, The British were not very judicious in utilising this enactment. One such instance is the fact that British imprisoned Bal Gangadhar Tilak for a period of 18-months using this Act, because of his anti-establishment news report in his newspaper. Furthermore, the British often used this act. to demolish infected structures, detain and isolate people with a suspicion of plague and prohibit religious conglomerations.
In the past decade, the act has been brought into implementation to deal with the outbreak of diseases like Swine-Flu, Cholera etc. The act was used by Chandigarh administration to tackle the outbreak of dengue and malaria in 2015. The act was last invoked in a village of Gujarat to prevent a cholera outbreak.
Scheme of the Act
The act is titled as Epidemic Diseases Act,1897. The act comprises of 5 Sections.
*In the light of cases of violence against healthcare workers and corona warriors, the Cabinet passed an ordinance promulgated by the President to prevent such incidents and punish the perpetrators involved.
Section 1 of the Act explains the title, extent of the act and its date of implementation. It is an important section as it informs us about the jurisdiction of act. and the date from which it comes into force. So, as per Section 1 of the act, it extends to the whole of India and it is in force since 1st November 1956.
We are aware that the act. has been enacted by the British. However, by the virtue of Article 372 of the Constitution of India, the laws and legislation enacted by the British gain validity.
This section has 2 sub-clauses.
1. Sub-clause 1 of the section, empowers the State Governments to issue directives and temporary guidelines for the prevention of an epidemic if the authority deems that the ordinary laws in implementation are not sufficient or adequate to tackle the spread of the epidemic disease.
2. Initially, Sub-clause 2 of this section had paragraphs (a) and (b). However, the paragraph was removed in the year 1937.
The clause empowers the state government to prescribe guidelines for a person travelling by rail transport or in a hospital or any other temporary settlement if the person is suspected of suffering from the epidemic diseases by the inspecting officer. The clause also instructs the state that such guidelines should be without any prejudice towards the legal provisions already in implementation.
Section 2A was inserted through an amendment in the year 1920. This section empowers the Central Government to issue regulations and directives if it deems that India or any part of it is threatened by the outbreak of any epidemic disease. It also has a provision which empowers the central government to inspect any ship/vessel arriving at any Indian port and to detain/inspect any person travelling through the vessel or arriving in India.
According to this Section-3, if any person defers or disobeys any regulation or guidelines made under this Act for safeguarding the health of the ordinary citizen and prevention of outbreak of an epidemic, he/she will be deemed for the commitment of a punishable offence under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
Section 188 of IPC- As per this Section, if any person disobeys any order promulgated by a public servant for any act or omission then he will be punished with imprisonment up to 1 month or a fine of Rs.200. Furthermore, if the gesture of disobedience or deference causes a threat to public health or human life one may be imprisoned up to 6 months or a fine may be levied up to Rs.1000.
This section states that any person who has acted in good faith or bonafide manner for the prevention of epidemic disease, there can be no initiation of any suit or legal proceedings against him. This section protects the Government officials and executive who implement or draft the directives in the situation of any epidemic and hence a suit cannot be initiated against them for acting under the authority of this act.
The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020
The epidemic diseases act was amended by President of India under Section 123 of Constitution of India which was approved by the cabinet on 22nd April 2020. The amendment aimed to include provisions for the protection of healthcare workers and expansion of powers of the central government for prevention of the pandemic of Covid-19. The key features of the ordinance are-
1. Powers of the Central Government– The Central Government has been empowered by this ordinance to inspect any ship, vessel, bus, train, goods vehicle, ship, vessel, or aircraft leaving or arriving at any airport or seaport. The government can also detain any person travelling by the above means if he is a suspect of such disease.
2. Protection of Healthcare Workers and damage to property– Under the ordinance, any person who commits violence or abets violence against healthcare workers or damage to any property will be punished with imprisonment between 3 to 5 years and a fine between 50 thousand to 2 lakhs. If the act of violence causes grievous hurt to the healthcare personnel then the accused shall face imprisonment between 6 months to 7 years and a fine between one lakh to five lakh rupees. The convict will also pay a court determined compensation to the healthcare worker on whom they have inflicted violence. In case of damage to property, the convict shall pay damages determined by the court and if he/she fails in the payment it will be recovered by through land revenue arrear under the Revenue Recovery Act, 1890.
Cases through the years
1. Ram Laul Mistry vs. R.T. Greer – In this case, the plaintiff sued the defendant who was a magistrate appointed under the Epidemic Diseases Act,1897. The magistrate informed the plaintiff of his property being plague-infested and of its demolition under the provisions of the act. The plaintiff asked for compensation against demolition. The magistrate refused; the plaintiff sued him. The defendant took the protection of Section 4 of the act with a contention that he can’t be sued as he was working in a bonafide manner. The judge of Calcutta High court gave the decision in favour of the plaintiff and held that Section 4 of the act could protect defendants act of demolishing a plague-infested building but not his non-payment of compensation.
2. Re. Nagappa Thevan and another (accused)– The accused lived in the town of Udumalpet. The town got infested with plague and the sub-collector ordered an immediate evacuation of the area. However, the accused kept his toddy shop open even after the regulation. The police arrested him for non-compliance of guidelines under Section 3 of the act. The Madras High Court duly observed that there was a breach of regulation, however, sub-collector is not empowered to make such regulation under the act. Hence, the accused was released by the police.
3. J Choudhury vs. The State of Orissa – The case is set in 1961. The accused was convicted under Section-188 of IPC for non-compliance of state regulation for inoculation against cholera before participation in the annual Rath Yatra. The accused a homoeopathic doctor himself resorted to the defence that he had taken homoeopathic remedy. The Orissa High Court upheld his conviction but reduced the fine to Rs.5.
Significance of the legislation
The act which came into being 123 years ago to treat bubonic plague has been to our rescue for enforcement of guidelines during all 5 phases of lockdown prescribed by both central and state governments. Karnataka was the first state to invoke the act against COVID-19. However, on reading the legislation in its bare form, it has many unexplained mentions. The powers conferred to Union and state governments need more clarity. Section 1 of the act which states its extent needs to be more clearly envisaged regarding Union territories and states, especially the UT of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
Furthermore, Section 4 of the Act. which protects government officers from judicial proceedings needs to be studied and implemented carefully. The powers are given to centre and state for the detention of suspects the disease. This power should not be implemented arbitrarily and without any prejudice. The reason that the author opines this is because the British used this Act for imprisoning freedom fighters. Lastly, this act, though very significant and instrumental in our fight against COVID-19 is less complacent in front of Disaster Management Act, 2005.
 1904 SCC Online Cal 91
 AIR 1916 MAD 325.
 AIR 1963 Ori 216.