24, Mar 2020 | CJP Team
As the Covid-19 pandemic claims new lives everyday and fresh cases emerge in different states, certain laws and legal provisions can enable a system to be put in place to best manage the fragile and fast deteriorating situation. Here’s a look at some such laws and how they can help the administration check the spread of the Corona Virus and save lives.
The law of the land is supreme in India as we follow the rule of law and hence for the government to take any kind of action, what is requisite is legal sanction for every action. In the past days India, in its bid to contain the spread of COVID-19, has had to take some preventive, prohibitive and coercive actions in the interest of public health and welfare. All of these actions are carried out under the aegis of certain laws which are invoked in such unprecedented situations. Since India has not seen a pandemic like this one since the Spanish flu of 1918, most of us are clueless on what to do in a situation like this.
Here’s a look at the laws that have been invoked in times of an epidemic, the rationale behind it and what it means for the public at large.
Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897
The provisions of this Act are very generic in nature. It means that it allows the government, either state or Central to take any measures or make temporary regulations which are necessary for containing the outbreak of the disease. Apart from its generic provisions, certain specific provisions include, inspection of persons travelling by railway, segregation in hospitals (special COVID-19 isolation wards), temporary accommodations of those suspected to be infected (quarantine in hotels). Any person who acts under the provisions of this law is protected (legal immunity) from legal proceedings as long as the act is done in good faith.
Any person disobeying any regulation or order made under this Act is deemed to have committed an offence punishable under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.
The bare Act may be read here.
Section 188 of IPC
Section 188 of the IPC, deals with offence of “Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant”. If the disobedience to any such order causes danger to human life, health or safety, is liable to be punished with imprisonment up to six months or a fine of Rs. 1,000. It is not necessary that the offender should intend to produce harm, or contemplate his disobedience as likely to produce harm. It is sufficient that he knows of the order which he disobeys, and that his disobedience produces, or is likely to produce, harm.
Public health related offences in IPC
Section 269 – Negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life.
The punishment under this offence is up to 6 months or fine or both. Now that the news of social distancing and lockdown of states has been widely communicated, one cannot plead ignorance and anyone flouting the lockdown regulations can be booked under this section by the police on patrol.
Section 270-Malignant act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life.
The only difference between sections 269 and 270 is that the former is invoked if the act is negligent and this one is invoked if the act is malignant which means it is backed with malicious, bad intent, done in bad faith. Here, the punishment is up to 2 years or fine or both.
Section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code
Section 144 of CrPC enables the Executive to issue order in urgent cases of nuisance of apprehended danger. There are 7 sub-sections under this section which detail the powers of the Executive Magistrate, empowered so by the State government. It basically gives a Magistrate (District Magistrate, a Sub- divisional Magistrate or any other Executive Magistrate) to direct any person to abstain from a certain actif such Magistrate considers that such direction is likely to prevent, or tends to prevent, obstruction, annoyance or injury to any person lawfully employed, or danger to human life, health or safety, or a disturbance of the public tranquility, or a riot, of an affray.
This section largely enables the Executive and therefore the law enforcement agencies to maintain order by taking extreme prohibitive actions to control public life. Hence, invoking section 144 by itself does not mean prohibition of assembly of 5 or more persons, but it means restriction on personal liberties of individuals which can take the form of prohibition of assembly. Such assembly is then termed as unlawful assembly which is punishable with imprisonment of up to 6 months or fine or both (as per IPC sections 141 and 143).
Imposition of section 144 of the CrPC does not imply curfew. A curfew is an extreme prohibitive order which confines people within their homes for a specified time period in a day, which can also be invoked vide section 144. For now, imposition of section 144 is being used only for deeming assembly of 5 or more persons as an unlawful assembly.
Disaster Management Act, 2005
This Act defines a disaster as, “a catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or man made causes, or by accident or negligence which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, and destruction of, property, or damage to, or degradation of, environment, and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area.” Clearly COVID-19 classifies as a disaster and hence the Central government declared it as a ‘notified disaster’ under this Act.
This means that states can make use of the State Disaster Relief Fund (SDRF) in taking measures to combat the disease. The SDRF is constituted under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and is the primary fund available with state governments for responses to notified disasters. The Central government contributes 75 per cent towards the SDRF allocation for general category states and UTs, and over 90 per cent for special category states/UTs, which includes north-eastern states, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
The bare Act may be read here
Essential Commodities Act, 1955
On March 13, the Central government declared masks and hand sanitizers as essential commodities until June 30, as per the Essential Commodities Act. This law allows the government to control production, supply, distribution of such commodities in order to secure their equitable distribution and availability at fair prices in the market. This means that these goods which are essential in the times of this epidemic especially for hospitals, people working in essential services such as supply of water, electricity, garbage disposal also law enforcement personnel and health care workers can avail these goods at fair prices. The control over its supply and production also ensures that there is no shortage of these goods in the market.
Thus, making handling of the epidemic easier while securing the health of those who cannot afford to quarantine themselves.
Essential Services Maintenance Act, 1981
Technically speaking, this law has not been invoked. This law ensures that essential services such as transport, postal, water supply, power supply are not interrupted due to workers’ strikes. In such times, the importance of this law lies in the fact that these services are still running in the country while all other employees have been asked to isolate themselves in their homes. Since these services are essential services, it is important that they keep running to ensure daily life of people is not disrupted in the times of such a crisis.
The bare Act may be read here
As per the powers bestowed upon states to formulate regulations under the Epidemic Diseases Act, the states of Maharashtra, NCR Delhi, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh have come up with their own set of regulations to deal with the containment of the disease intheir own way.
The Maharashtra COVID-19 Regulations, 2020 lays down many specific provisions related to hospitals, quarantine, dissemination of information about the disease, testing centres, voluntary reporting to State control in case of travel history, power of authorities to isolate people, punishment for defying advice of designated officers and so on.
The Maharashtra regulations may be read here
(Feature Image – News Heads)