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The ongoing epidemic of COVID-19 has put the world on alert with every nation taking stringent action to prevent further spread of this infectious disease. Further, taking a similar stringent course of action to bring mitigate and control the pandemic, the Indian government declared a nationwide lockdown during which citizens are not allowed to go out of their home until and unless it is deemed necessary otherwise. The contravention of lockdown would be met with strict action could be taken against those who flout the relevant rules and regulations to be followed during this period.
The incident which occurred in the Nizammudin area of Delhi where members of religious group Tablighi Jamat had gathered in its Markaz, sets an example before us that if measures laid down are not followed then within a matter of days this disease can spread like wildfire throughout our nation. After relevant authorities were informed that a gathering of more than 1900 people was present in the Markaz the area was immediately evacuated and necessary steps are taken to obtain blood samples to test whether any one of them were in any way infected by COVID-19. Unfortunately by that time majority of them had already returned to their home town or were on their way back to their homes all over India. What is troubling is that those in that gathering of Tablighi Jamat were from all over India and thus if the virus was in their body then they took it back to their respective states, unchecked.
In such a situation question arises that what can government do to bring the perpetrators to justice and ensure that such a rash act is no more committed which might lead to lives getting endangered.
THE LEGAL ASPECT
In the year 1897 by an act called The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 (hereafter referred to as “the Act”) was brought into effect by then colonial British government in India, keeping a similar situation of Bombay in mind where a Bubonic plague had forced its residents to migrate out of the city. The Act authorizes the government to take relevant recourse under the law to bring the existing epidemic under control.
Under Section 4 of the act, if a person disobeys the advisory or order made under this act then they can be penalized under Section 188 of Indian Penal Code (hereafter, “the IPC”) for such dereliction of duty on part of common citizens to follow the advisory issued by the competent authority.
To a significant extent, both the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 (hereafter, “the CrPC”) and the IPC play a vital role in the proper execution of the Act. The IPC contains provisions in Section 269 and Section 270 which specifically mention penalties for spreading an infectious disease intentionally in lieu of harming anyone with imprisonment under it extending up to 2 years in the concerned Court deems appropriate. Section 271 of IPC contains provisions regarding quarantine and penalty for disobeying the government direction regarding quarantine in a particular area. Further, Section 144 of CrPC deals with prohibiting public gatherings for enforcing lockdown.
The FIR was filed by Delhi Police against Tablighi Jamaat under Section 3 of the Act and Sections 269 (Negligently doing any act known to be likely to spread infection of any disease dangerous to life), 270 (malignantly doing any act known to be likely to spread infection of any disease dangerous to life), 271 (knowingly disobeying any quarantine rule) and 120 b (criminal conspiracy to commit an offence), of the IPC.
There have been several occurrences till now during this pandemic, where people have been made liable under Section 269 and Section 270 of IPC for violating the quarantine and lockdown rules. The history of such occurrences can be dated back to the year 1886, where the Madras High Court held a person culpable under Section 269 for undertaking a train journey while knowing the fact that he had a forwent of cholera. A similar case showed up, Nadir Mal in the year 1902, wherein the offender was held culpable under Section 269 for recklessly travelling by train after residing in a plague-stricken house and coming in contact with an infected person.
The provision under Schedule 7 of the Indian Constitution raises a problem as the ongoing epidemic is not restricted to any particular state or region instead it is one which is faced throughout the nation. For a problem like this, we need a legislative provision which could be implemented nationwide to curb the spread of this disease further in any other part of our country.
In such a situation the government had two options in front of it,
Use provisions present in “Disaster Management Act, 2005”, (hereafter, “the DMA”)
Therefore, enforcing a national emergency would have given absolute control to central government but would have taken the necessary decision-making power of the state governments away from it. Theoretically and at the ground level, the state government plays an important role in the decision making and maintenance of law and order. In order to ensure that state governments are kept in the loop and at the same time the central government can exercise wider ambit of power, the declaration of National Emergency could not have been an appropriate course of action as taking away the power to issue orders by the state governments would have made it harder to bring the situation under control. Thus the only feasible and inevitable option left with the government was to use the Disaster Management Act, 2005 to impose a nationwide lockdown.
Under section 6(2)(i) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), under the aegis of the central government is allowed to issue nationwide directives for mitigation of the disasters. Section 6(2)(i) of the DMA when read together with Section 51(b) illustrates that there are a set of stringent penalties which can be imposed if a person does not abide by the regulations or directions given by the competent authority. The penalty may range from a term of imprisonment ranging from 0 to 1 year. Further, if the act on part of the person disobeying the order leads to a fatal incident or put someone’s life in jeopardy then such person can be imprisoned for a term which can extend up to 2 years if the injury is found severe enough.
Thus, for those who intentionally break the lockdown and commit any act which might have the deterring effect on measures taken by the government to curb the spread of the dreaded COVID-19 virus might be punished under the Section 51 of the National Disaster Act of 2005. Such instances may range from going out in open during times when the state has explicitly specified people to stay at home to intentionally acting in a manner which might have the effect of spreading this communicable disease.
Another major problem that the government, as well as the citizens of our nation face, is the fact that inappropriate material or false information is being circulated on different social networking sites which is detrimental to the peace of our society during these trying circumstances. Though it should come as a relief that India has relevant comprehensive laws for curbing such malpractices. Under section 54 of DMA itself if a person spreads false information about the disease or exaggerated severity of the disease then he can be penalized with an imprisonment term which might extend to a year. One facet that needs to be pondered upon is that Section 54 of DMA is not the only one that can be used to deter any such mischievous act by people trying to create chaos in the society. Section 505(1)(b) of the IPC is another such provision which can be utilized by the relevant authority if anyone tries to disseminate false information leading to creating chaos. Such spread of information will be penalized severely for their actions with an imprisonment term which might extend up to 3 years or fine or both if deemed appropriate.
Upon analyzing the current situation it can be ascertained that the government needs to take stringent and swift action by utilizing relevant law in its disposal to bring incidents which might lead to spread of this infectious disease to an abrupt stop otherwise there is no saying about how catastrophic the spread of this particular disease might turn out to be. Additionally,despite the prevalence of several laws and regulations in our country, there has been a continuous infringement of quarantine laws.
The Epidemic Diseases Act, dearth a provision which authorizes the centre to move forward and deal with the biological plights.The need of the hour is to have a law as per the current scenario, technology and requirement. The amendment in this act is the need of the situation. There is a possibility that this type of epidemics can happen in future so we need well-drafted detailed legislation which is as per the modern-day issues.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Pritesh is a first-year student at National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi. He has a keen interest in constitutional law.
Astutya Prakhar is a first-year law student at National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi. His areas of interests are Corporate Finance Law snd Securities Law. He is an avid reader of politics, sociology and public policy.
In content picture credits: theprint