Coronavirus: India may invoke provision of 1897 Act

Coronavirus: India may invoke the provision of Epidemic Disease Act, 1897

The Centre on Wednesday decided to invoke a provision of a nearly 125-year-old law to ensure that multiple government advisories on COVID-19 becomes enforceable.

The decision to invoke the provisions of Section 2 of Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 was taken at a review meeting chaired by the Cabinet Secretary Rajeev Gauba.

“It was decided that all States and Union Territories should be advised by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to invoke provisions of Section 2 of Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 so that all advisories being issued from time to time by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare/State/UTs are enforceable,” the Union Health Ministry said in a statement.

Framed to tackle a bubonic plague epidemic in the Bombay state of British India, the law had an objective of preventing the spread of “dangerous epidemic diseases” better. It remains one of the shortest legislatures comprising of only four sections

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The Governor-General of colonial India used the act to confer special powers upon the local authorities to implement the measures necessary for the control of a dangerous epidemic.

In case of any disease outbreak of epidemic proportions, the law empowers the State to take measures going beyond the scope of the ordinary law after issuing public notices prescribing such temporary regulations that are to be observed by the public

Under the law, the state government may prescribe appropriate regulations for the inspection of persons travelling by railways (or any other transportation).

A subsequent section (Sec-2A) allows the government to inspect any ship leaving or arriving at any port and detention of any person intending to sail or arriving.

According to a 2009 report published in the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, the whole act and the way it was implemented by the British government led some of the historians to describe the law as “one of the most draconian pieces of sanitary legislation ever adopted in colonial India” and "a law that has enormous potential for abuse."

The execution of the Act remained more or less dormant after Independence.