Epidemic Diseases Act - History 

#GS2 #Governance #Acts 

The Centre amended the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897, making attacks on healthcare workers a cognisable, non-bailable offence. It had invoked the Act in March itself to fight the Covid-19 outbreak.  

  • The colonial-era Act empowers the state governments to take special measures and prescribe regulations in an epidemic, defines penalties for disobedience of these regulations, and provides for immunity for actions taken under the Act “in good faith”. 
  • Epidemic Diseases Bill was tabled on January 28, 1897, during an outbreak of bubonic plague.  
  • 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 it was 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. 

What has changed 

  • Through an ordinance on April 22, the Cabinet amended the Act to say that commission or abetment of acts of violence against healthcare service personnel shall be punished with imprisonment for a term of three months to five years, and with a fine of Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh.  
  • In case of causing grievous hurt, imprisonment shall be for a term of six months to seven years and with a fine of Rs1 lakh to Rs 5 lakh. 
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