The Epidemic Disease Act: How a 19th century Act became crucial in 21st century

COVID-19, or popularly referred to as Coronavirus, has been a global pandemic affecting nearly 3 million people and killing over 2,00,000 people. In over 100 years , the world has not seen such a pandemic, some experts also say that the world war II is much worse than this epidemic, and if not controlled, it would […]

COVID-19, or popularly referred to as Coronavirus, has been a global pandemic affecting nearly 3 million people and killing over 2,00,000 people. In over 100 years , the world has not seen such a pandemic, some experts also say that the world war II is much worse than this epidemic, and if not controlled, it would take more lives than the lives lost in the world war II. This epidemic has proved to be more harmful than Bombay’s outbreak of Bubonic plague. This pandemic put a stop to the world’s main commercial activities and, because of this outbreak, railways had to cancel trains for the first time in India. nSo, looking at the severity of the outbreak of the virus, the Indian government introduced the 123-year-old legislation called The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897.

Bombay’s Bubonic plague outbreak of 1896, which eventually spread to most parts of the world, was the time when the then British parliament enacted this act to contain the outbreak. Queen Victoria delivered a speech discussing the outbreak in early 1897, and it was then she was directed to bring a piece of legislation that would be strict and help control the outbreak, and thus the birth of the legislation of 1897. The strict measures in the act were said to be implemented for the welfare of the public, but the facts were contradictory to the British government ‘s promises. The most common fact is that this act was used to imprison freedom fighters in the name of public welfare.

In the year of 2017, the Indian government came up with the bill called “Public health (Prevention, Control and Management of Epidemics, Bioterrorism and Disasters) Bill; this bill was introduced to the floor of parliament because, in case of a public health emergency, this bill would become a guiding force to manage such a public health emergency for the centre and state authorities, but the sad face of parliament could not pass the bill and stays locked down. The only option left to the Indian government, however is to implement and amend the Act of 1897 in such a way as to make it more efficient and effective.


According to Section 2 of the Act, if the state government is satisfied that an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease is visited by or threatened by the state or any part thereof; and if it believes that the ordinary provisions of the law are insufficient for the purpose, the state may take or require or empower any person to take certain measures and prescribe them by public notice. Regulations may be laid down by the State Government for the inspection of persons travelling by rail or otherwise, and for the isolation, in hospital, temporary accommodation or otherwise, of persons suspected of being infected with any such disease by the inspecting officer. Section 2A permits the central government to inspect any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port and to detain the ship or vessel or any person intending to sail or arrival at that port. Section 3 prescribes penalties for disobeying any regulation or order provided under the Act in read with article 188 of the Indian Penal Code. Under this clause, the person who disobeys any order under the Act shall be punished with a punishment of 6 months imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 rupees or both. Section 4 mentions that for anything done or in good faith intended to be done under this Act, no suit or other legal action shall lie against any person.


The key issue with this act, a very restriction, is that the act, a century-old act, and much has changed over the last century, is not up to the modern world’s governing standards. The act is silent on the concept of an epidemic disease that is dangerous. The act is vague on the country’s territorial limits and needs to be amended for the violation of the penal provision as well. The act also does not talk about the supply of vaccines and medicines or the implementation of the response mechanism, in this act there are several such loopholes that the government has to look up and modify those loopholes in a timely manner so that in today’s time the act can be made fully effective. The first Indian state to implement this act became Karnataka.


Moreover, there have been instances of the most critical service providers, i.e. employees of healthcare services, being targeted and assaulted by miscreants during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, thereby preventing them from performing their duties. Unfortunately, members of the medical community have become the most vulnerable victims, even as they continue to work tirelessly around the clock and save human lives, as they have been seen by some as carriers of the virus. This has contributed to incidents of their stigmatisation and ostracization, and unjustified violence and harassment, sometimes worse. Such a condition threatens to prevent the medical community, which is a vital necessity at this hour of the national health crisis, from performing their duties to their optimum best and maintaining their morale. Although healthcare service staff are obligated to work without discrimination, they have a fundamental need for cooperation and support from society to perform their duties with trust. In the wake of such incidents, the government ordered the state governments to amend the Act of Epidemic Disease, 1897, to protect health workers and their properties.

An ordinance was passed on 22nd April 2020 to amend the provisions of the act so as to provide protection to the healthcare workers. Violence was defined in the declaration with the inclusion of harassment, physical injury and property damage. In addition, health care professionals include providers of public and clinical healthcare services such as doctors, nurses, paramedical personnel, community health workers, and all other individuals empowered to prevent this outbreak. Penal clauses can also be invoked in such instances. The amendment allows cognizable and non-bailable offences of acts of violence. Commission or abetment of such acts of violence shall be punished with imprisonment for a term of three months to five years and with fine of Rs.50,000/- to Rs.2,00,000/-. In case of causing grievous hurt, imprisonment shall be for a term six months to seven years and with fine of Rs.1,00,000/- to Rs.5,00,000/-. In addition, the offender shall also be liable to pay compensation to the victim and twice the fair market value for damage of property .


But still, the question remains the same, will this century-old act help India come out of this crisis or in 2017 the Indian Parliament made a mistake in not passing the bill that could have altered the scenario, since the 2017 bill was well fitted with the requirements of today’s time, because we have no such luxury of a modern day act, India has to win the century-old act battle. Once the situation is under control and the battle against the pandemic has been won, in the immediate future, the Indian parliament should consider enacting new legislation to address these situations.