After the fourteen-hour Janata Curfew on Sunday the 22nd of March 2020, our Prime Minister has declared a nationwide lockdown of 21 days from March 25 to April 15 in order to contain the spread of coronavirus in India. So far we have been successful in limiting the numbers, but, as the possibility of community spread looms large, the authorities have been compelled to adopt stringent measures to prevent the massive outbreak of a magnitude that currently, Italy is reeling under. India with its vast population could be hit in the worst possible way, given our general standards of hygiene, clustered living habits and an ill-equipped and understaffed health care system. A vast majority of our gargantuan population lives in slums, in extreme proximity with one another providing the ideal breeding ground for epidemics such as Coronavirus that spreads from infected persons to those in the near vicinity.
Quarantine is a state of isolation in which people who are exposed to an infectious disease are placed for a fixed time, in order to curb the further spread of such disease. Coronavirus is highly contagious, that is why incoming travelers from corona hit countries and people coming in contact with Corona infected persons are being kept under observation to ascertain their medical status. However, we have had several instances of people avoiding health screening at airports, fleeing from quarantine, hiding their travel history and not following the rules prescribed for self-isolation by the concerned authorities. This is unfortunate as the irresponsible act of these people has jeopardized the safety of their family, friends and fellow countrymen. People are largely unaware of the existing laws under which they can be prosecuted for such actions that are detrimental to the health and safety of others.
In our country, disobedience to quarantine rule is punishable under Section 271 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both. Failure to take requisite precautions despite being aware of the possibility of the spread of such infection or disease is punishable under Sections 269 and 270 of the IPC. Under Section 269, whoever unlawfully or negligently does any act which is, and which he knows or has reason to believe to be, likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description up to six months or fine or with both fine and imprisonment.
Under Section 270, Whoever malignantly does any act which is, and which he knows or has reason to believe to be, likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both. Malignancy is characterized in diseases that are highly virulent, infectious and life-threatening. Disobeying the norms prescribed for social distancing, coughing or sneezing without covering the nose and mouth, not wearing masks in public, disregarding norms for social isolation, loitering on the streets in groups, socializing in disregard of the prescribed regulations, etc. are all punishable offences under Section 270.
Our quarantine or isolation laws are very mild in comparison to countries such as North Korea where military law was imposed to enforce a quarantine in the wake of coronavirus pandemic. It was reported that an official who returned from China was executed when he went to a public bath in violation of his quarantine. India has invoked powers under the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 to control Covid19. This act is 123-year-old legislation with just four provisions that allow the State to inspect people travelling by railways, ships (air travel was not an option at the time when this law was enacted) and segregate suspects in hospitals, temporary accommodations or otherwise. It was enacted in Feb 1897 with the objective of preventing the spread of dangerous epidemic diseases. As per this law whenever the country or any state or any part of the country or any state are faced with an imminent threat of the spread of any dangerous epidemic disease and the existing provisions of the ordinary law are insufficient to prevent its outbreak or contain its spread then It empowers the Central as well as State Governments to take necessary measures to prevent the outbreak or spread of such epidemic. However, since Public health features in the state list under the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India, the Centre is relegated to an advisory role and the onus of invoking and imposing the laws as well as regulations lies primarily on the states.
Towards this end, they may take or require or empower any person to take such measures as may be deemed necessary. They may also, by public notice, prescribe temporary regulations to be observed by the public or by any person or class of persons to prevent the outbreak or spread of the epidemic. Any person who disobeys any regulation or order passed under this law shall be punishable under Section 188 of the IPC, 1860 with imprisonment for a term ranging from one to six months. For conviction under Section 188, it is not necessary that the offender should intend to produce harm, or contemplate his disobedience as likely to produce harm. It is sufficient that he knows of the order which he disobeys, and that his disobedience produces, or is likely to produce, harm. Additionally, States may also issue orders by invoking Section 144 of CrPC, 1973 to restrict public gatherings and impose a curfew. Violation of orders under section 144 CrPC is also punishable under Section 188 of the IPC.
The officers entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing the orders or regulations enacted under the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 shall be protected from prosecution for anything done by them in good faith towards the implementation of this law. With an objective to replace this old law, A Public Health (Prevention, Control and Management of Epidemics, Bio-terrorism and Disasters) Bill was drafted by the Ministry of Health and Family welfare in 2017 to empower local government bodies for taking swift action during emergency situations. Had it been enacted, the authorities would have been better equipped in the present scenario.
We also have the Disaster Management Act, 2005 that provides for effective management of man-made and natural disasters which may result in substantial loss of life or human suffering. Biological disasters that may be caused by epidemics are covered under National Disaster Management Guidelines, 2008 for the management of biological disasters drafted by National Disaster Management Authority, Government of India. We also have a National Disaster management plan, 2019 to strengthen disaster resilient development and enhance our capacity to recover from them.
These are testing times. We all need to understand the magnitude of the catastrophe that awaits us if we disregard the precautionary measures mandated by the State. We all need to follow the rules prescribed for hygiene such as washing hands frequently, social distancing, wearing masks, using sanitizers, safe disposal of used tissues, staying indoors, self-isolation during sickness and reporting to the health care authorities immediately upon developing any symptom. More than laws and regulations, it is public support that can help.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.