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Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 – Archaic; Colonial; A legislative abomination?

by Abhinandan Jain
Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 – Archaic; Colonial; A legislative abomination?

In the prevailing state of nation-wide and much-necessitated lockdown, the silenced streets have been seamlessly compared with the aftermath of a ‘law and order’ crackdown. As I venture into the memoirs of a member of civil society, it elaborately displays this government’s orthodox and traditional tools to silence rioting (read dissent), by way of brutal intrusions and internet shutdowns. However, corona virus is a submicroscopic infectious agent with no identifiable internet router on its head (or maybe no head at all). The civilization is grappling to survive a pandemic disaster, misperceived as a ‘law and order problem’ in the year 2020, and not 1897 (specifically).

In its unfailing spree of managing crisis by aid of traditional tools, the Union government recently advised the states to invoke the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, a fossilized 123-year-old Act (Ageism against laws is excusable). In spite of being enlisted as a subject in the state list under Schedule VII, ‘public health’ has been legislated upon by merely 8 states and Union Territories. Therefore, it came as no surprise when the government rightfully declared the pandemic, as a “disaster”, invoking the Disaster Management Act, 2005 to enforce lockdown measures and direct provincial governments, also paving the way to seek assistance under the State Disaster Response Fund.

The Act of 1897, by virtue of its old-age and applicability in a south-asian-territory-with-brown-parents, demands a respecting narration of the tale of its inception and remarkable existence. As the outbreak of bubonic plague was wreaking havoc in the colonial-late-19th-century-Bombay, claiming thousands of lives, the British prowess introduced and enforced the Epidemic Diseases Act in February 1897 to “provide for the better prevention of the spread of Dangerous Epidemic Diseases.” Interestingly, this legislation aided the colonial establishment in an epidemic-battling territory in more ways than one. Un-intending to reduce tropical medicine and health to a cultural and colonial construct, the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, as recently as 2016, opined that the act was a tool for colonial expansion[1], as it quoted Historian David Arnold, “(This act is) one of the most draconian pieces of sanitary legislation ever adopted in colonial India”.

In an otherwise simple task to understand this single-page act of the British reign, it is understood that this act empowers the state government to regulate dangerous epidemic disease by taking special measures and prescribing regulations. Additionally, the central government is empowered to regulate ships or vessels leaving or arriving in India. Disobedience to the regulations is an offence punishable under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, while immunity is provided to public officers for performing functions under the law in good faith. An ordinary legislation conferred ‘extraordinary but necessary powers’, as contended by John Woodburn, the council member who introduced it.

The lacunae in this archaically ridden and contemporarily outmoded piece of legislation are pointedly addressed by the below raised questions (which quite effortlessly outnumber the sections in this law):

  1. What is the definition of “dangerous epidemic disease”?
  2. Why are the powers of Central Government to take measures and regulate inspections restricted to ships and vessels and not extended to aircrafts?
  3. What is the legal framework for accessibility and distribution of vaccine and drugs?
  4. What are the human rights principles to be observed during the outbreak of a “dangerous epidemic disease”?
  5. What are the guiding principles in the event of public health need arising out of use of biological weapons by an adversary?
  6. Can Section 188, IPC guarantee justice to the sufferers of this pandemic, which is also costing the Indian economy? (Trivia: The maximum fine prescribed u/s 188, IPC is Rs. 1000)
  7. What is the chain of command? (In the event of conflict between the directions given by the center under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and those given by the state under the Epidemic Disease Act, 1987, which shall prevail?)

Acknowledging these lacunae, a high-level committee was formed in 2014 and a draft Public Health (Prevention, Control and Management of Epidemics, Bio-Terrorism and Disasters) Bill, 2017 was proposed by the central government which sought to repeal the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 (only if it wasn’t for the ever-prevailing administrative and legislative lethargy). However, the Bill has still not been introduced in the Parliament to replace the century old archaic piece of legislation in question and going by what some experts believe, the Bill still doesn’t address some key modern issues and lacks comprehensiveness with regards to economic ramifications of an epidemic, modalities of scientific data collection and proportionality of the implementation of proposed rules to human rights.

It’s an undisputable fact that the need for enacting a consolidated legislation bringing various related laws in this regard under one umbrella is apparent and imperative. Laws including relevant provisions of Indian Penal Code, the Livestock Importation Act, 1898, Indian Ports Act of 1908, Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1940, and Aircraft Rules of 1954 need to be streamlined and enacted under a single piece of legislation. Furthermore, modern and advanced methods for dealing with epidemics are required such as establishment of a nationwide surveillance infrastructure at centre, state and district levels, early warning systems and effective, more advanced modes of collection, collation, compilation, analysis and dissemination of data. The scope and functioning of programs like Integrated Disease Surveillance Project (IDSP)[2] are to be enhanced and implemented. There is an urgent need, more now than ever, for the formulation of Country Cooperation Strategies with regards to epidemics by International Organizations like the WHO in order to devise methods of global cooperation and collective response to pandemics.

References and suggested readings:

Rakesh, P. S., The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897: public health relevance in the current scenario. Indian journal of medical ethics, 1(3), (2016), https://ijme.in/articles/the-epidemic-diseases-act-of-1897-public-health-relevance-in-the-current-scenario/?galley=html

Arnold, D., Science, technology and medicine in colonial India (Vol. 5). Cambridge University Press, (2000).

Patro BK, Tripathy JP, Kashyap R. Epidemic diseases act 1897, India: whether sufficient to address the current challenges? J Mahatma Gandhi Inst Med Sci. 2013; 18:109-11

Echenberg M., Plague ports: the global urban impact of Bubonic plague, 1894-1901 London: New York University Press, (2007), 58.

Macleod R. Introduction, Disease, Medicine, and Empire: Perspectives on Western Medicine and the Experience of European Expansion , Roy Macleod and Milton Lewis (eds), Routledge, London, 1989.

National Disaster Management Guidelines—Management of Biological Disasters, National Disaster Management Authority, Government of India, New Delhi,  ISBN 978-81-906483-6-3, (July 2008)

The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897, Act No 3 of 1897 Available from: http://mohfw.nic.in/showfile.php?lid=1835

National Disaster Management Act, 2005 Available from: http://www.ndmindia.nic.in/acts-rules/DisasterManagementAct2005.pdf

The Public Health (Prevention, Control and Management of Epidemics, Bio-Terrorism and Disasters) Bill, 2017 Available from: https://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/draft/Draft%20PHPCM%20of%20Epidemics,%20Bio-Terrorism%20and%20Disasters%20Bill,%202017.pdf

[1] Rakesh, P. S., The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897: public health relevance in the current scenario. Indian journal of medical ethics, 1(3), (2016)https://ijme.in/articles/the-epidemic-diseases-act-of-1897-public-health-relevance-in-the-current-scenario/?galley=html

[2] https://idsp.nic.in/index4.php?lang=1&level=0&linkid=313&lid=1592

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