New Delhi: The Law Commission has noted "significant deficiencies" in the Epidemic Diseases Act and has recommended for making suitable amendments to address existing gaps or bringing in a comprehensive legislation to effectively deal with future epidemics.
The panel headed by Justice (retired) Ritu Raj Awasthi has submitted its report to the government, calling for an exhaustive overhaul of the law.
In his cover note to Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal, Justice Awasthi noted that the Covid-19 pandemic unleashed an unprecedented challenge for the Indian health infrastructure.
"In the course of dealing with this crisis, certain limitations in the legal framework relating to health were realised. While the government was quick to respond to the emerging situation, it was felt that a more comprehensive law could have enabled a better response to the crisis," he said.
The Law Commission, he said, holds the view that the existing legislation exhibits "significant deficiencies" in addressing the containment and management of future epidemics in the country as new infectious diseases or novel strains of existing pathogens may emerge.
The immediate response to Covid-19 such as the imposition of a lockdown was invoked under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, he recalled.
In light of the immediate challenges, especially those faced by the healthcare workers, Parliament amended the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 in 2020.
"However, these amendments fell short as critical gaps and omissions remained in the Act," he noted.
In its report, the law panel said that there is an "ardent need for comprehensive legislation" to deal with epidemics that provide for a coordinated response in the unforeseen event.
Considering the modern scientific advancements, the new or the amended Act should not only give the government mere stipulated powers "rather it should shape appropriate response mechanisms in preventing and controlling epidemic diseases," it said.
"For taking the appropriate measures to contain and control the epidemic diseases; and to demarcate the power between Centre and State, the stages of the disease must be defined such as an 'Outbreak' which further leads to an 'Epidemic' and a 'Pandemic'," it recommended.
Similarly, the difference between 'quarantine' and 'isolation' should be clarified by appropriately defining these terms, it said.
The Act must focus on the government's duties in controlling or regulating the production, distribution, transportation and storage of necessary vaccines, medicines and other medical equipment, it said.
The panel noted that currently, there is no specification in the Act which ensures the availability of essential vaccines and drugs during epidemic situations.
The Epidemic Diseases Act should appropriately decentralise and demarcate the power between central, state and local authorities to regulate an unfolding epidemic crisis, it said.
The law panel also suggested that a flexible enforcement mechanism is required for prevention, control and management of epidemic diseases as per the stage of the spread of infectious or contagious disease.
"During Covid- I 9, to contain the spread of infection, various regulations pertaining to social distancing were enforced throughout the country. Hence, it becomes imperative to define such a term in the parent Act itself," the panel said.