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Review: Law Commission Recommends Complete Overhaul of Archaic Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897


The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, was enacted by the British during the colonial period in response to the plague epidemic in Bombay. The COVID-19 epidemic exposed the limitations in the colonial-era legislation. The Law Commission of India in its 286th report has recommended a complete overhaul of this legislation.

The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, was enacted by the British during the colonial period in response to the plague epidemic in Bombay. This legislation, consisting of four sections, was introduced on 04 February 1897. Section 2 of the Act empowers state governments to take necessary measures to prevent the outbreak of epidemics. This includes the authority to inspect individuals, enforce quarantine measures, and implement other regulations essential for public health. During events like the COVID-19 pandemic, several Indian states invoked this Act to implement measures such as quarantine, isolation, and social distancing to control the spread of infectious diseases. An explainer about the Act by Factly is available here.

COVID-19 exposed the limitations of the colonial-era legislation

The immediate response to COVID-19 such as the imposition of lockdown was invoked under the Disaster Management Act of 2005. In 2020, an amendment was made to the Epidemic Diseases Act which primarily focused on protecting healthcare workers from violence during COVID-19. While it offered relief, it lacked considerations like defining epidemic criteria and citizens’ duties. Previous attempts to create comprehensive epidemic laws through private bills failed in Parliament. The current legal mechanisms lack flexibility for health emergencies, requiring a strengthened law to effectively address life-threatening situations during outbreaks. 

Law Commission submitted a report on the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 

Emphasizing the need for consolidated legislation dedicated to preventing, controlling, and managing epidemic diseases, the 22nd  Law Commission submitted its 286th report that comprehensively reviewed the archaic law. Consultations were held by the Law Commission with the Ministry of Health, and other experts to improve the current health laws.

According to the report, there are many limitations in the legislation that were exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the limitations have been highlighted below: 

  • Lack of Clarity and Definitions: The Epidemic Diseases Act lacks clear definitions, creating ambiguity in the criteria for declaring epidemics and differentiating between outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics.
  • Demarcation of Powers: The Act grants broad powers to central and state authorities without proper decentralization, leading to uncoordinated responses during health crises.
  • Omissions in Roles and Responsibilities: The Act fails to define roles, responsibilities, and provide statutory force for local governments, hindering a coordinated and effective response at various levels.
  • Gaps in Regulatory Framework: The Act doesn’t establish a synchronized framework for public and private laboratories, causing regulatory gaps during health crises and hindering effective cooperation.
  • Insufficient Legal Framework: The Act lacks specific regulations for essential medicines, drugs, vaccines, their price control, and safe disposal of infectious medical waste, and does not address information dissemination effectively, highlighting the need for a comprehensive and updated legal framework.
  • No Guidelines for Safe Disposal: The Act does not address specific regulations for the safe disposal of infectious medical waste and human corpses during epidemics, despite their potential role in spreading infections.
  • Outdated Punishment Provisions: The punishment provisions under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code are considered outdated and may not act as a sufficient deterrent in the present scenario.
  • Ineffective Information Dissemination: The Act does not provide effective mechanisms or clear guidelines for disseminating information, a critical aspect in managing epidemics by keeping citizens informed and aware.

To sum up, the report noted that the Act lacks modernization and clarity in addressing emergent health hazards, and there is a pressing need for a comprehensive, updated legal framework for managing epidemics effectively. 

From definition to penalty, several recommendations have been made by the Law Commission

In light of modern scientific advancements, the amended or new Act should not just confer stipulated powers but actively shape response mechanisms for preventing and controlling epidemics, as suggested by the Law Commission of India. It suggested that the Act should comprehensively define key terminologies including ‘Epidemic.’ Further, it should also specify stages such as ‘Outbreak,’ ‘Epidemic,’ and ‘Pandemic’ for effective containment measures and clear demarcation of powers between the Centre and State. 

Similarly, it called for clarifying the difference between ‘quarantine’ and ‘isolation’ as given in The Epidemic Diseases Bill, 2023. Other definitions to be included are that of ‘Physical Distancing’ and ‘Clinical Establishments’.

Proper demarcation of powers between State and Centre through formulation of SOP 

Another suggestion was that the Act should decentralize and clearly define the powers of Central, State, and local authorities to regulate epidemics effectively. An adaptable enforcement mechanism is crucial, aligning with the evolving stages of infectious or contagious diseases. Since ‘public health and sanitation’ falls under State jurisdiction, State Governments should take the lead in implementing preventive and management measures during epidemics, the report added. Furthermore, as the prevention of infectious diseases is on the Concurrent List, both the Centre and States can enact laws. 

Different scenarios of the epidemic have been considered for the SOP

A dedicated Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) was also deemed necessary to avoid conflicts and ensure proper decentralization of implementation powers. Three possible scenarios in the event of an outbreak were listed for formulation of the SOP. One is when an ‘outbreak’ of any infectious or contagious disease has affected any part of the State, the second is when there is an inter-state spread of the epidemic, and the third scenario is when there is an extreme threat across the country. The flowchart illustrating the broad SOP is given below.

Source: Law Commission of India’s report

An ‘Epidemic Plan’ has been recommended to deal with different aspects of the disease outbreak

Another change suggested is the creation of an ‘Epidemic Plan’. The Law Commission recommended that the Central Government collaboratively formulate an Epidemic Plan with relevant ministries, State Health Departments, health institutions, and expert bodies. State Governments should work in tandem, creating regulations aligned with the Epidemic Plan, considering local health infrastructure. The Epidemic Plan should be given statutory force by amending the Epidemic Diseases Act, imposing a duty on governments for its preparation. The plan should be periodically reviewed and revised, addressing prevention, detection, control, and management of epidemics, with specific aspects mandated through statutory provisions, it suggested.

Appropriate measures for imposing lockdown and for carrying out physical distancing by identifying essential and nonessential services during any epidemic, improved surveillance, and issuance of guidelines for proper disinfection and decontamination, among others have been recommended. Additionally, during crises, the government should set directives to control and regulate the availability of essential healthcare supplies like medicines, vaccines, and PPE Kits, along with regulations for their distribution and sale, in the Plan.

Other provisions to be included are privacy-friendly disease surveillance, effective public information dissemination, overseeing testing and research for vaccines and medicines, and safe infectious waste disposal.

Commission has suggested enhancement of punishment and direct incorporation of punishment into the Epidemic Diseases Act

With respect to the penal provisions, the commission noted that the implementation of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, 2023, in place of the IPC has enhanced the punishment to imprisonment for up to one year, a fine of up to five thousand rupees, or both. Despite the significant punishment increase, the Commission suggests incorporating this punishment directly into the Epidemic Diseases Act. It proposed categorizing the offence into two heads: first, for negligently contravening provisions with a milder punishment, and second, for wilful contravention with a stricter penalty. The Commission also recommended escalating punishments for subsequent or repeat violations. To expedite enforcement, it proposed making these offences cognizable and non-bailable.


About Author

A bachelor’s degree in mathematics and master’s in social science, she is driven by ardent desire to work with this unique combination to create her own path instead of following the herd. Having served a stint as the college union chairperson, she is a strategist who is also passionate about nature conservation, art and loves solving Sudoku.

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