India uses 123-year-old Act to help authorities curb coronavirus spread

Commuters with protective masks travel in a crowded bus in New Delhi, on March 18, 2020.
Commuters with protective masks travel in a crowded bus in New Delhi, on March 18, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - Colonial-era laws are usually outdated pieces of legislation, often out of tune with current realities. But India has fallen back on using a 123-year-old British colonial-era law, first implemented in 1897 to control the spread of bubonic plague, to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The government has asked states to enforce the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 to help the authorities stem the outbreak of Covid-19 in India and better implement various health advisories.

The Act gives authorities wide powers to curb the spread of "dangerous epidemic diseases", including setting up containment areas and preventing people from entering or leaving containment facilities.

"This (Act) is being invoked to ensure that no one can flee without completing treatment (in quarantine facilities). We will use it in the interest of public health and safety," West Bengal chief minister Mamata Bannerjee told reporters on Tuesday (March 17).

It also allows the inspection of people travelling by railway or other modes of transport, and authorises inspection of any ships or vessels.

It carries a maximum of six months' punishment for a range of violations, including disobeying quarantine orders and creating panic.

India, the world's second most-populous country, has taken strict measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus and has so far seemed to have done well. It has 148 positive cases in a population of 1.35 billion, with three fatalities so far.

An outbreak would prove disastrous for the country, which has an uneven health infrastructure and a high population density, particularly in urban areas.

The Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) has said that there is, so far, no evidence of community transmission, and only local transmissions were taking place.

 
 
 
 

Local transmissions refer to patients who have been in contact with people infected with the coronavirus, while community transmissions are patients with no known contact with infected people.

This comes even as there is speculation that the numbers may actually be more and are going undetected, with ICMR promising to step up testing.

Some stringent measures included banning its own nationals from returning from European Union countries, Afghanistan, the Philippines and Vietnam. It has also barred all foreign nationals and those holding Overseas Card of India which permits foreign citizens of Indian origin to travel freely into the country.

The stringent measures have found support amid fears of a bigger outbreak.

Experts said that the Epidemic Diseases Act appeared to be relevant in current times.

"This Act was brought in to curb the plague at the time. Now it has been invoked in overall interest of the public at large. It is an Act that is still viable today because of the nature of the disease," said Mr A.C. Kaushik, a Supreme Court lawyer.

"Some people are raising the issue that this is bad for our fundamental rights (because it gives extraordinary powers to the government). But I am of the view that the government has the right to impose this at a time of emergency."

The Epidemics Diseases Act has been used in the past in localised cases, for instance to prevent the spread of cholera in a village in Gujarat in 2018; to deal with dengue and malaria in Chandigarh, a city in northern India, in 2015; and to prevent an outbreak of swine flu in Pune, a city in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, in 2009.

Dr Binod Kumar Patro, Additional Professor, Department of Community and Family Medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in the north-eastern state of Bhubaneshwar, said the Act needed to be updated.

"The Act needs to lay out facilities for isolation and the scope of quarantine... The role of the state has to be defined," Dr Patro said.

 
 

Law enforcement authorities also said that the Act needed to have more teeth.

In the southern state of Telangana, the police toyed with charging three people under the Act for spreading fake news related to the coronavirus.

The three men circulated a picture of a patient saying he had died of the coronavirus at a local hospital.

"We first thought of bringing the Epidemic Diseases Act because the government has given that whoever circulates fake news (on coronavirus) is liable for punishment," said Mr N. Bhujanga Rao, Assistant Commissioner of Police in Telangana.

This Act gives the state powers to take special measures and prescribe regulations.

"But we used the Disaster Management Act, which had one year of punishment for creating panic, to charge the three. We thought six months' punishment was too little."