COVID-19: Government seeks help from antiquated laws

Coronavirus, this is the word every human being is scared of more than anything in this entire world right now. In almost every region people have locked themselves up to not be affected by this virus. Most of them who are affected have either died or still suffering and thankfully now there are also cases of people recovering from it. Everyone is well aware of the risks involved, the consequences they would have to face if they get exposed to the virus and also about the precautions that should be taken as well. This virus causes infection in humans known as the COVID-19 which can lead to mild or serious respiratory diseases. Well, this is not the first time humans are getting infected by this virus, in 2002 there is a record of around 800 deaths of people who were infected and the most recent outbreak being the 2019 coronavirus pandemic with a death toll of 21,297 people globally. The number of people affected by this virus is also too high with more than 4 lakh cases being reported. India alone has reported 665 total cases and deaths of 13 infected people from different states.

Globally there are a lot of precautions taken by the international organizations as well as the respective governments of the countries to tackle this crisis since there isn’t any vaccine invented as of now to inhibit or cure this disease so they have guided people by asking them to wash hands regularly, maintaining social distancing, restricting its people from moving around, known as quarantine or asking citizens to self-isolate themselves at their houses, the situation in certain places is out of control because of which the government had to legally impose certain laws in their states.

India has also imposed restrictions and ought to take legal action if anyone violates the laws laid down with respect to this crisis. Have they passed new laws to overcome this? The answer is no. India’s weapons to tackle the pandemic includes a couple of antiquated laws. The laws that come in force once again are Epidemic Disease Act, Essential Services Maintenance Act and Essential Commodities Act.

The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897

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This is a 123-year-old colonial legislation, once used to imprison freedom fighters. It gives special powers to state governments. Narendra Modi government has already advised states to use it to make their coronavirus advisories more stringent. The law was enacted on February 4th 1989, introduced by the British to combat Bubonic Plague in Bombay, has been described by historians as the most draconian colonial legislation. It gives full protection to authorities for any action taken, with a provision that says, “No suit or other legal proceeding shall lie against any person for anything done or in good faith intended to be done under this Act”. Government officials said such laws were needed for smooth implementation of measures in the battle against a seemingly uncontrollable disease. This law enables the state to ban public gatherings, ask schools and large institutions to stop functioning, and issue advisories to companies to explore work-from-home models. It also gives the state a right to penalize media organizations spreading misinformation.

The legislation simply states its objective as “better prevention of the spread of dangerous epidemic disease.” Section 2 of the Act, confers states with the following special powers:

Power to take special measures and prescribe regulations as to dangerous epidemic disease.

COVID-19: Government seeks help from antiquated laws

(1) When at any time the [State Government] is satisfied that [the State] or any part thereof is visited by, or threatened with, an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease, the [State Government], if [it] thinks that the ordinary provisions of the law for the time being in force are insufficient for the purpose, may take, or require or empower any person to take, such measures and, by public notice, prescribe such temporary regulations to be observed by the public or by any person or class of persons as [it] shall deem necessary to prevent the outbreak of such disease or the spread thereof, and may determine in what manner and by whom any expenses incurred (including compensation if any) shall be defrayed.

(2) In particular and without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing provisions, the [State Government] may take measures and prescribe regulations for—

(b) The inspection of persons travelling by railway or otherwise, and the segregation, in hospital, temporary accommodation or otherwise, of persons suspected by the inspecting officer of being infected with any such disease

Karnataka, where 29 people have tested positive so far, implemented the legislation on March 11. It was the first Indian state to do so. The Covid-19-specific regulations, the state announced, will be in place for a year. Haryana, in the north, declared coronavirus an epidemic under this Act on March 12th. Maharashtra, which has the highest recorded cases of coronavirus, has since enforced the Act, along with Delhi and Goa.

COVID-19: Government seeks help from antiquated laws

The Essential Services Maintenance Act of 1968

The Essential Services Maintenance Act was enacted in 1968, to maintain certain essential services and the normal life of the community. The Act includes a long list of “essential services” in its charter ranging from post and telegraph, through railway, airport and port operations and it prohibits the key employees in these services from striking.

This act has been mainly imposed to ensure that services like power, police, fire, pharma, water and defence do not stop. Also if there would be any illegal strike that would be held by the employees and hits the essential services this act will come to the rescue.

The state government today amended Himachal Hoarding and Profiteering Prevention (HHPP) order, 1977, declaring N-95 face masks, surgical masks and hand sanitizers as “essential commodities” under ESMA to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the state. Ministry of consumer affairs had invoked ESMA on March 13 declaring N-95 face masks, surgical masks and hand sanitizers as “essential commodities” for prevention, control and treatment of coronavirus in the country.

COVID-19: Government seeks help from antiquated laws

Essential Commodities Act of 1955

The ECA was enacted in 1955. It has since been used by the Government to regulate the production, supply and distribution of a whole host of commodities it declares ‘essential’ in order to make them available to consumers at fair prices. Additionally, the government can also fix the maximum retail price (MRP) of any packaged product that it declares an “essential commodity”.

Well, it is obvious that in a situation like this masks and sanitizers were the commodities that were labelled as “essential commodities” but it is a different issue that people still face a shortage of supply of both these items. On March 13th, the Central government notified order under The Essential Commodities Act, 1995 to declare 2 ply and 3ply surgical masks, N95 masks and hand sanitizers as essential commodities till June 30, 2020. The decision has empowered the Centre as well as states to regulate the production, quality, distributions of masks and hand sanitizers, and also to smoothen sale and availability of these items. The government have also notified that these items should not be sold for more than its Maximum Retail Price since they are people who would think of making profits and taking advantage of the situation.


India being the world’s second-largest populous country has shown an impressive response to safeguard its people from the pandemic. Indian government’s rapid actions to limit travel by suspending visas and quarantining all incoming travellers has helped. Government has taken decisive measures to contain community spread by restricting mass gatherings. At present Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has declared a total lockdown in the entire country for 21 days and the response of the citizens is commendable. Even so, India will also have to face the challenges same as other countries but if the statistics continue to show a relatively low infection rate, then India will have helped lead the way in containing coronavirus.