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The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020

The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020

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President Ram Nath Kovind on April 22, 2020, gave his assent for promulgating an ordinance making acts of violence against healthcare personnel fighting COVID-19 pandemic as cognizable and non-bailable offenses. The 1897 law, introduced by the British to combat Bubonic Plague, has been described by historians as the most draconian colonial legislation. It gives full protection to authorities for any action taken, with a provision that says, “No suit or other legal proceeding shall lie against any person for anything done or in good faith intended to be done under this Act[1] The executive stated that such laws were needed for the smooth implementation of measures apparently in this battle against an uncontrollable disease.

Origin of the Act in 1897

Council member J Woodburn tabled the Epidemic Diseases Bill on January 28, 1897, during an outbreak of an epidemic, bubonic plague. Woodburn said, “Plague which has taken root in Bombay has been gradually extending to other parts of the country, and it seems to the Government expedient that some measures should be promptly taken before the disease has attained large proportions elsewhere to hold it in check”.

The Bill noted that municipal bodies, cantonments and other local governments had extraordinary powers to deal with such situations but felt those were “inadequate.” The government of the day was also concerned that several countries were alarmed by the situation in India, and Russia had speculated that the whole subcontinent might be infected. The Bill called for special powers for governments of Indian provinces and local bodies, including to check passengers of trains and sea routes. It said existing laws were insufficient to enable municipal officers to deal with various matters such as “overcrowded houses, neglected latrines and huts, accumulations of filth, insanitary cowsheds and stables, and the disposal of house refuse.”

How was it passed?

The Bill was referred to a Select Committee headed by James Westland. The Committee submitted its report the very next week, on February 4, 1897, and the Bill was passed the same day, after a brief discussion.

The Bill was passed amid concerns of the disease spreading, with crowds from Bombay having reached places all over India. The government was particularly worried about Calcutta, then the Indian capital.[2]

2020 Ordinance

On 22 April 2020, the Government of India announced the promulgation of an ordinance, 'The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance 2020', to amend the act, adding provisions to punish those attacking doctors or health workers.[3] The ordinance allows for up to seven years of jail for attacking doctors or health workers (including ASHA workers). The offense will be cognizable and non-bailable among other things[4].[5]In addition to this, such cases need to be investigated in a time-bound and must be resolved in 1 year. Also, the law specifies that the guilty will have to pay twice the market value of the damaged property as compensation for damaging the assets of health care staff including vehicles and clinics. [6]

Powers of the central government

The Act specifies that the central government may regulate: (i) the inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port, and (ii) the detention of any person intending to travel from the port, during an outbreak.  The Ordinance expands the powers of the central government to regulate the inspection of any bus, train, goods vehicle, ship, vessel, or aircraft leaving or arriving at any land port, port or aerodrome.  Further, the central government may regulate the detention of any person intending to travel by these means.

Protection for healthcare personnel and damage to property

The Ordinance specifies that no person can:

  1. Commit or abet the commission of an act of violence against healthcare service personnel, or
  2. Abet or cause damage or loss to any property during an epidemic.  Contravention of this provision is punishable with imprisonment between three months and five years, and a fine between Rs 50,000 and two lakh rupees.  This offense may be compounded by the victim with the permission of the Court.  If an act of violence against a healthcare service personnel causes grievous harm, the person committing the offense will be punishable with imprisonment between six months and seven years, and a fine between one lakh rupees and five lakh rupees.
  3. These offenses are cognizable and non-bailablee
     

Compensation

Persons convicted of offenses under the Ordinance will also be liable to pay compensation to the healthcare service personnel whom they have hurt.  Such compensation will be determined by the Court.  In the case of damage or loss of property, the compensation payable to the victim will be twice the amount of the fair market value of the damaged or lost property, as determined by the Court.  If the convicted person fails to pay the compensation, the amount will be recovered as an arrear of land revenue under the Revenue Recovery Act, 1890.

Investigation

Cases registered under the Ordinance will be investigated by a police officer, not below the rank of Inspector.  The investigation must be completed within 30 days from the date of registration of the First Information Report.

Trial

The inquiry or trial should be concluded within one year.  If it is not concluded within this time, the Judge must record the reasons for the delay and extend the time.  However, the time may not be extended for more than six months at a time.When prosecuting a person for causing grievous harm to healthcare service personnel, the Court will presume that person is guilty of the offense, unless the contrary is proved.[7]

Comment

"Health workers who are trying to save the country from this epidemic are unfortunately facing attacks. No incident of violence or harassment, against them, will be tolerated. An ordinance has been brought in, it'll be implemented after President's sanction," said Union Minister Prakash Javadekar said.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a unique challenge, and several states have enacted special laws, such as the present ordinance, to offer protection to doctors and other medical professionals. Unfortunately, our greatest assets during the pandemic are under attack, and the same cannot be allowed to continue. It is always our collective responsibility to ensure a conducive atmosphere for them. The amendments have also ensured that investigation for such cases takes place in a time-bound manner. I feel that the Ordinance will positively impact the morale and reinstate trust and confidence back into our healthcare community, such that they can continue to contribute during these difficult times and to also highlight and uphold the nobility and integrity of their profession and its influence.

The question, if this makes good or bad lies within human nature, during a health catastrophe like the plague and the black death, these measures are what keeps people from rioting and keeping the situation calm and restrains catastrophe from happening.

 

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