— Management of Biological Disaster Guideline, GoI, 2008
Behind the urgency to detect and quarantine suspected Covid-19 patients and the clarion call for social distancing lies a stark reality: in terms of enforcing laws to contain Covid-19, the Centre can do little on the ground.
The legal inadequacy to tackle disease outbreaks was known for long, baby steps were taken, but at the end of the day, the country was not ready when it encountered another pandemic — arguably the severest since the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed around seven million people in the country.
The main legal weapon the government possess today is the Epidemic Disease Act of 1897, a hurriedly drafted short legislation to stonewall the bubonic plague that devastated life in Bombay in 1896, forcing people to migrate out of the city. No wonder, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba last week advised states to invoke Section 2 of the Act so that all advisories the Union health ministry was issuing could be enforced on the ground.
After all, health is a state subject. Union government’s role could, at best, be advisory and coordinating in nature, since Section 2 of the Act only empowers a state to inspect people and segregate suspected patients. The only power the Centre derives from the British Raj-era law is on “inspection of any ship or vessel leaving or arriving at any port” that comes under its jurisdiction. The Act does not even mention airports. It is understandable — there were no aeroplanes 123 years ago.
However, when the Centre drafted the 156-page Management of Biological Disaster Guideline in 2008 — followed in letter and spirit even today — the realisation came that the Epidemic Disease Act was inadequate to deal with bioterrorism and international spread of diseases.
After all, the law does not bestow the Centre any power beyond issuing advisories and coordinating. It cannot even regulate the transfer of biological samples — imagine a coronavirus sample getting stolen while being taken to a laboratory.
During the first term of the UPA government, a public health emergencies bill was drafted. But the bill went into cold storage after states called it an infringement upon their powers.
Later, during the Modi government’s first term, a similar draft was more sincerely followed up, with the health & family welfare ministry naming it Public Health (Prevention, Control and Management of Epidemics, Bio-terrorism and Disasters) Bill 2017, proposing to repeal the epidemic law of 1897.
The draft bill explains in clearer terms the quarantining of suspects and isolation of the infected, in addition to empowering the Centre to direct states and district or local bodies as well as usurping powers bestowed to states under Section 3 if it is found to be “expedient and in public interests” to do so.
In addition, the proposed law also embedded a provision marking that anyone intentionally violating the law could end up paying a fine of up to `1 lakh and face imprisonment of up to two years.
This provision could have been useful now given the rising instances of Covid-19 suspects skipping quarantine.
Under current laws, police can charge someone under IPC’s Section 269 for negligent act and Section 270 for malignant act for spreading an infectious disease which is dangerous to life.
Former Union health secretary Lov Verma concedes that there is a need to strengthen India’s legal framework but laws alone are insufficient. “India still has a plethora of laws to take on such an emergency. There are enough guidelines too. The problem arises mainly because of coordination and implementation issues,” he says, adding that silo mentality in the government often poses a challenge.
In the last fortnight, during which the Centre intensified its efforts to contain the pandemic, its coordination with states has largely been satisfactory.
Also, no inter-ministerial tussles have come to the fore. In fact, the home ministry, which usually takes the lead during crises such as earthquakes, floods and cyclones, has taken a backseat, allowing the health ministry to coordinate with states as mandated by the Disaster Management Act of 2005.
On March 11, Union Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla, who chairs the national executive committee to coordinate during crises, invoked certain provisions of the National Disaster Management Act to delegate coordinating powers to the union health secretary to facilitate antiCovid preparations and interventions.
The government indeed preempted a scenario like this, says Kamal Kishore, a member of National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which comes under the home ministry. “We thought about a possible biological disaster and did a lot of peacetime work, including drafting the National Disaster Management Plan, 2019. That, along with the guidelines on biological disaster (2008), are coming handy now,” he told ET Magazine.
True, the NDMA, along with the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), did India’s first full-scale biological management emergency mock drill at Patna airport in the summer of 2018.
The participants had enacted an Ebola outbreak scenario, vindicating what Kishore says — an inkling about a biological disaster and the need to be prepared. But, according to an official who took part in the 2018 exercise, that mock drill was never followed up, nor did its outcomes find any place in subsequent government guidelines or laws.