The spread of Covid-19, or the novel coronavirus, is challenging public healthcare systems around the world. With a rising number of cases in India, the government has decided to roll up its sleeves and exercise its powers under available laws to battle this pandemic.

By Monday, 19 out of 37 states and Union Territories of India had issued orders for complete lockdowns. Before that, the government had suspended the provision of most visas until April 15. The government derives its powers to issue such directives and guidelines during an epidemic under two primary laws: the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

What is the Epidemic Diseases Act?

This short legislation contains only four sections, but is a very powerful tool for the executive. Under this law, the Central government as well as state government, have the power to take special measures and prescribe regulations to prevent the spread of a “dangerous epidemic disease”.

Under Section 2A of the Act, the Central government has the power to take any measures or prescribe regulations to inspect any ship or vessel leaving or arriving in any port and to detain any person planning to leave or arrive into India. The revised travel advisory issued by a group of ministers, including the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, is an example of this.

State governments also have the power under Section 2(1) of the Epidemic Act to take measures to prevent the outbreak of a dangerous epidemic disease by prescribing regulations to be enforced with respect to any person or group of people. An example of this would be the order on March 16 under the Delhi Epidemics Diseases, COVID -19 Regulations, 2020, whereby the Delhi government has restricted gatherings with groups of more than 50 persons till March 31.

Despite such expansive powers under the Epidemic Act, the phrase “dangerous epidemic disease” has not been defined in the law and the lack of such a definition warrants a serious review of this law by Parliament. Besides, the act does not provide any specific guidelines or infrastructure to deal with an epidemic. To remedy this, Parliament in 2005 enacted the Disaster Management Act.

What is the Disaster Management Act?

The stated object and purpose of the DM Act is to manage disasters, including preparation of mitigation strategies, capacity-building and more. In the popular imagination, a disaster is usually associated with a natural calamity such as a cyclone or an earthquake. Even the definition of a “disaster” in Section 2 (d) of the Disaster Management Act states that a disaster means a “catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or man made causes…”. To address the current epidemic outbreak, the Central government has included the Covid-19 outbreak as “Notified Disaster” as a “critical medical condition or pandemic situation” .

Under the act, governments get access to appropriate funds in order to respond and provide immediate relief to victims. These are the National Disaster Response Fund, the State Disaster Response Fund and the District Disaster Response Fund.

A man's hand stamped with instructions for home quarantine. Credit: PTI

Under Section 46 of the act, the National Executive Committee and the National Disaster Management Authority can authorise the use of such funds for emergency responses, relief and rehabilitation.

The State Disaster Response Fund is being used for multiple purposes, such as setting up quarantine facilities, establishing additional labs, covering the cost of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, procuring thermal scanners, ventilators, air purifiers and consumables for government hospitals including food, clothing and medical care to people isolated there. In addition, they are also used to cover the cost of consumables for sample collection, screening and contact tracing of positive persons.

The Ministry of Home Affairs said that the costs towards quarantine should not exceed 25% of the state disaster relief fund’s allocation for the year and expenditure on equipment for laboratories and equipment should not exceed 10% of the total allocation.

The law provides for penal measures for offences under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, as well the Epidemic Act, to punish people disobeying a public servant authorised to carry out directions given by the state government. In recent days, FIRs have also been registered under Section 269 of the IPC against people who escape quarantine in hospitals. Section 269 of the IPC punishes any person who unlawfully or negligently commits any act that is likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life with imprisonment up to six months and/or fine.

The provisions of the Disaster Management Law are to be invoked as extraordinary measures to mitigate and control loss of human lives.

As many have noted, it is surprising that colonial-era laws like the Epidemic Act and the Indian Penal Code still constitute the bulwark of the government defence system in battling epidemics. While the response of the public health system has been admirable, once the outbreak is contained, Parliament must take immediate steps to review the disaster management laws to create a comprehensive legal regime and appropriate protocols to effectively tackle any future public health crisis.

Malavika Rajkumar is the Content Lead at Nyaaya, an initiative of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi.