Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 – A Blunt Sword

What is Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897?

Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 which was passed as a legislation in India 123 years back is currently hitting the news after the outbreak of novel Coronavirus making its way to the Indian Territory. This legislation which was once considered to be a gifted asset of the British imperialism to India has been at present, advised by the Central Government to be invoked in all the States and Union Territories of India to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The main motive for enacting this Act is to prevent the rapid spreading of dangerous epidemic diseases within the walls of India.

The nexus of disseminating the Act in 1897 by the Britishers were to battle against the spread of bubonic plague epidemic in the former Bombay Presidency in the 1890s. As the Act has taken shape to control the epidemics, from that time onwards, this Act has continued to find its relevance in the contemporary times during the event of outbreaks of modern-day diseases in the country such as swine flu, dengue, cholera and now Coronavirus to restrain the same from spreading. The Act coloured with the colonial framework is one of the shortest legislations consisting of only 4 sections; but fortunately, this Act even after having a small charter has aided India to control the epidemiological transition even at the outset of the 21st century.

Significance of the Legislation

An Act passed by the Legislature is never just an afterthought even if it is centuries old. It has a specific purpose that it serves and the resilience of the Act is that the provisions still hold good. With the establishment of the legal framework, a sense of responsibility is evolved in the state machinery to handle the issue with resource-efficiency by minimizing the loss to a large extent. Epidemic diseases Act, 1897 is not a toothless tiger as the Act has emphasized the suitable power that is dedicated to the Government to Act as a catalyst in controlling

Section 2 and 2-A are the heart and soul of the Act. It provides the power to the Central Government as well as the State Government to implement temporary regulations to be observed by the public or any person or class of persons which it deems necessary to prevent the outbreak of such disease or the spread thereof, and the Government shall determine in what manner and by whom any expenses incurred (including the compensation if any) shall be defrayed.

Nevertheless, such power is contingent on the condition that ordinary provisions of the law which are already in force are insufficient to control the outbreak of disease. Moreover, these sections have delegated power to the Government regarding the inspection of persons
travelling by railway, ship or any vessel otherwise followed by the power of quarantining the persons suspected by the inspecting officer whom he thinks have been infected with any such disease.

Section 3 imposes penalty on those persons who disobey any regulation or order made by the Government in lieu of this Act and shall be deemed to have committed an offence punishable under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. This section provides for an offence in cases where there has been a disobedience to the order enforced by a public servant. However, the last section of the Act which is Section 4, is an indemnity clause working on the principle of uberrima fides i.e. utmost good faith which means that no suit or any legal proceeding shall lie against a person for an Act done in good faith under the ambit of this Act.

Thus, this Act show us the intent with which the legislature wants to quantify the gravity of the problem and the proactive measures inscribed in the Act to prevent the outbreak from affecting the lives of very many Indians.

Limitations of the archaic framework

As the society moves from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity, there is an unapologetic need for the law to cope-up with the pace of industrial as well as intellectual development. As the waves of globalization have minimised the barriers drawn between the nations, a global forum has been made to dedicate the communication hub that led to high emigration-immigration rates, frequent air travels, e-commerce, and so on. The drawback of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 is the ignorance of orienting itself to incorporating amendments that adhere to dynamic changes. There has been no provision to accommodate inspection of air travellers or people staying in the porous borders of the nation or beyond.

There has been continuous witlessness to adopt modern scientific methodology in the legislation to prevent the outbreak. The development of medical science has led to the creation of different vaccinations, medicines etc. which can be effective in curing such diseases, however, the legislation only integrates the process of quarantine as the last resort to control the epidemic. The very objective for which the legislation is drafted has been silent in defining the same. All in all, it means that the Act has not provided the definition of what actually is “dangerous epidemic disease” giving the platform for Government to decide. Ahead of this, the legislation ignores the human right aspect that should have been the enabling provision in the Act before making this Act solely Government-driven providing them with the anarchic or arbitrary powers.

Even if we see the current scenario where the Corona outbreak is at its nasal stages, Government hospitals only have the command to test the patients and the private hospitals are not allowed to test, as of yet even though they have requested the private hospitals for accommodating patients as there is a lack of space in the Government hospitals. This can be a good example of surveillance but a bad state of affair to manage 130 crore of people and their health.

Further to point out, this Act although preaches the concept of ‘prevention is better than cure’ yet, it lacks the authority of surveillance because of the lack of information of the agenda of this legislation in both; the Government as well as the citizens. This Act has powers but no proper mechanism to curb down the issue smoothly. Despite having guidelines in place to ‘self-isolate’ and to practice ‘social-distancing’, people in different walks of life have either been forced to go to work or do so voluntarily thereby, thus resulting in  rapid multiplication of this deadly virus.


What is said to be done is unsaid unless Actually been done. Without a comprehensive Public Healthcare Act, we are dependent upon redundant instruments like The Epidemic Act 1897 which is non-functional in itself when it has to be holistically looked into given the era of technological and scientific advancement. The Act requires an amalgamation of the digitalization and artificial intelligence with the framework it proposes at present. The duties should not be in contravention with that of the Government’s but should be delegated to even the public at large as it is them who are most affected.  One Act can be a panacea to problem, but such has to be exhaustive and elaborative in principle answering all the questions that arise or could arise in controlling the widespread disease. Certainly, this Act has bailed out India earlier in cases of epidemics, nevertheless, this Act at present needs a complete makeover so that the Government does not have to compromise with the health of its citizens when in dire need. It is for the lawmakers to carve out the mechanism to ensure that the citizens are in safe hands.


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