The 286th Law Commission Report highlights ‘significant deficiencies’ issues in managing epidemics, emphasizing the outdated Epidemic Diseases Act, of 1897 (EDA).

More about the news:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a detailed examination to address deficiencies in the legal framework for future epidemics.
  • panel led by Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi submitted a report that calls for a comprehensive overhaul of existing epidemic laws.

Key Highlights of the Report:

1. Limitations of the existing EDA:

  • The EDA, being a century-old law, lacks effectiveness in dealing with modern infectious disease challenges such as Ebola, Zika, COVID-19, etc. 
  • During COVID-19, immediate response was invoked under the Disaster Management Act, of 2005.
  • Amendments were made to the Epidemic Diseases Act in 2020, but critical gaps remained related to the distribution of functions, authority, penalties, etc. 
  • The report points out potential abuse of the colonial-era legislation such as centralization of power at the Union Government, etc. 

2. Proposal for Change:

• The Law Commission recommends the creation of an Epidemic Plan and Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).

Epidemic Plan:

  • Central government responsibility, in collaboration with states, ministries, health institutions, experts, and stakeholders.
  • Must be prepared, enforced, and revised regularly.
  • Inclusive provisions on quarantine, isolation, lockdowns, disease surveillance, medical supplies, information dissemination, testing, research, and waste disposal.

SOP Implementation:

  • Aims to prevent conflicts between states and the Central government.
  • Defines three stages of infectious disease spread and corresponding responses.

3. Stages and Responses: The law commission made a clear demarcation of functions and authority between the Centre, State, and local authorities. It divided the functions and authorities into 3 stages: 

• First Stage – Outbreaks in the State:

  • States empowered to take measures aligned with the Epidemic Plan.
  • Local authorities can implement preventive measures at a micro-level.

• Second Stage – Inter-State Spread:

  • The central government frames regulations based on the Epidemic Plan.
  • States follow these regulations for a coordinated response.

• Third Stage – Extreme Threat:

  • Central government intervenes if states can’t contain the infection, ensuring uniform measures and addressing conflicting guidelines.

4. Penalty Enhancement:

• The existing penalty provisions as not stringent enough. There is a proposal for enhanced penalties to act as a more effective deterrent.

  • Under the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, 2023 (erstwhile Indian Penal Code), the punishment has been enhanced to a jail term that may extend to one year or a fine of ₹5,000 (up from IPC Section 188’s jail term of up to six months and a fine of ₹1,000)

5. Way Forward:

  • Strengthen legal foundations to ensure a more effective, coordinated, and adaptable response to future epidemics in India.
  • There is a need for a broad framework and concerted approach for utilizing resources of both public and private sectors.
  • Clearly define powers and obligations at different levels of government.
  • Uphold the fundamental rights of citizens while implementing preventive and control measures.

In conclusion, the Law Commission’s report underscores the imperative for a comprehensive overhaul of epidemic laws. The commission recommended an Epidemic Plan, SOP, clear demarcation of powers, and enhanced penalties for a more robust, coordinated, and rights-respecting response to future health crises.

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