COVID 19 Vis-a-Vis Revival of a Pre-Independence Law

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The Indian Government, during the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, took relevant steps to avoid the mass spread of the highly communicable disease and invoked The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897[1]. The preamble of the act itself specifies the same[2]. This pre-independence law, which goes way back 123 years, has once again come to our rescue. The Act[3] was put in place due to the mass spread of the bubonic plague outbreak in Mumbai. The plague was said to have spread through rats[4] and it killed hundreds of people in Mumbai.

Though the British Government was said to have cleverly used the Act to imprison freedom fighters, the Indian Government is using the Act as a weapon to fight the novel coronavirus. While the Central Government’s powers are limited under the Act, it is the unity of various states in the country that has brought the Act to the forefront. Many states like Karnataka, Maharashtra, Delhi, Kerala, and Gujarat have issued safety guidelines and brought certain regulations to stop the spread of the virus. The states have exercised their powers under the Act to force employees of private establishments/ industries/factories/shops etc. to stay at home in the present times, to treat them as ‘on duty; to stop all construction work immediately; to shut nightclubs and weekly bazaars, etc.

Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 – An Overview

This Act was enacted on 4th February 1897 for preventing the spread of epidemic diseases; it empowered both the Central and the State Government(s) to take certain actions to prevent the spread of such diseases. The Act, comprising merely of four sections, is among the shortest in India.

Section 2 of the Act empowers State Governments to take special measures and prescribe regulations during the outbreak of any epidemic disease. This Act states that if the State Government believes that if other Acts are insufficient for the said purpose, it may take certain measures by way of a public notice to prescribe temporary regulations for the public/private entities. The Regulations mentioned above have been enacted under Sections 2, 3 and 4 of the Act.

Section 2A of the Act empowers the Central Government to take measures and pass regulations for the inspection of any ship arriving or leaving India and for the detention of any person intending to sail, if the Central Government is satisfied that India or any part of India is threatened with, an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease and the ordinary statutes in force will be insufficient to take appropriate action.

Section 3 of the Act states that any person who disobeys an order or regulation made by the government under the Act shall be punished in accordance with Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Section 188, IPC imposes punishment for disobeying an order promulgated by a public servant. Disobedience of an order passed by a public servant and “if such disobedience causes or tends to cause obstruction, annoyance or injury, or risk of obstruction, annoyance or injury”, is punishable with simple imprisonment which may extend up to a month and/or a fine of up to Rs. 200.

However, if this disobedience “causes or tends to cause danger to human life, health or safety, or causes or tends to cause a riot or affray”, it shall be punishable with imprisonment extending up to six months and/or fine up to Rs. 1,000. Pertinently, violation of the regulations passed under the Act due to the outbreak of Covid-19 would attract the latter punishment as it would tend to harm human life, health, and safety.

Section 4 of the Act protects public servants from legal action while acting in good faith under the provisions of the Act. While discussing the ambit of Section 4, the Calcutta High Court in 1904 in the case of Ram LallMistry v R.T. Greer[5] held that omission to pay compensation as prescribed under the regulations passed under the Act would not be protected under Section 4.

Provisions of the IPC attracted in such scenarios

In addition to Section 188, certain other provisions of the IPC relating to public health and safety may also be attracted during the outbreak of an epidemic disease.

Section 269 of the IPC prescribes punishment for negligent actions that may spread infection of any disease, thereby threatening human life, punishable with imprisonment which may extend to six months and/or fine.
Section 270 is a more serious offence than the one listed under Section 269. It imposes punishment for malignant actions which may spread any disease dangerous to life. The punishment under this section may extend to two years of imprisonment and/or fine.
Section 271 of the IPC prescribes punishment for disobeying quarantine rule. Such punishment may extend up to six months imprisonment and/or fine.


Under the provisions of this Act, The Indian Government is taking steps in regulating the spread of the epidemic virus and bringing the necessary modifications and changes which are required to control the spread of diseases. The Act had been applied to states during pandemics like H1N1 Flu, Cholera, etc. However, this is the first scenario where the present act has been applied to the whole of INDIA.

Author:- Akarsh Sharma

Co-Author:- Keyur Tripathi


[1] Act No. 3 Of 1897
[2] “An Act to Provide For the Better Prevention of the Spread of Dangerous Epidemic Diseases”
[3] The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, Act No. 3 Of 1897
[4] VibhaVarshney, UnravellingThe Bombay Plague (Original: 16 July 2015) Available At Https://Www.Downtoearth.Org.In/Reviews/Unravelling-The-Bombay-Plague-50165 (Last Visited: 22nd April 2020)
[5] (1904) ILR 31 Cal 829.


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