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Ever since the Coronavirus outbreak, the Indian government has taken measures to halt the spread of the pandemic.
Though public health and sanitation forms part of the State List, both Union and State Governments have been constitutionally empowered to legislate on matters concerning Public Health.
Right to health, though not expressly mentioned, forms part of Part III of the Constitution. In the case of Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India, the Supreme Court interpreted protection of health to be within the ambit of life and liberty under Article 21 of our Constitution.
The Apex Court, in the case of State of Punjab and Ors. v. Ram Lubhaya Bagga, held,
"...the right of one is an obligation of another. Hence the right of a citizen to live under Article 21 casts obligation on the State. This obligation is further reinforced under Article 47, it is for the State to secure health to its citizen as its primary duty."
Additionally, in the case of Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity and Ors. v. State of West Bengal and Anr., the Court stated that it is the responsibility of the government to provide medical aid to every person and to work for the welfare of the general public.
While the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020 declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the Indian government on March 14 declared it to be a ‘Notified Disaster’. This helps India in legally relaxing the stringent norms for providing assistance and funds to fight this virus.
To this end, India constituted a high-level Group of Ministers, under the chairpersonship of Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan, to review, monitor and evaluate the preparedness and measures taken regarding the management of the Novel Coronavirus disease.
The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897
This is the primary legislation to strengthen the country to prevent the spread of dangerous epidemic diseases, and has been used a number of times in the past to fight diseases such as Swine Flu, Dengue and Malaria.
In its meeting dated March 11, 2020, the High Level Group of Ministers decided that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare should advise all States and Union Territories to invoke provisions of this Act so that all advisories being issued by the Ministry are enforceable in the respective States and Union Territories.
Section 2 of the Act, which talks about the power to take special measures, reads as follows:
"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."
Consequently, on the same day, the government of Himachal Pradesh announced The Himachal Pradesh Epidemic Disease (COVID – 19) Regulations, 2020; followed by Delhi announcing The Delhi Epidemic Diseases COVID – 19 Regulations, 2020, and the government of Maharashtra announcing The Maharashtra COVID – 19 Regulations, 2020 on March 14.
Additionally, the Tamil Nadu Health and Family Welfare Department, to this effect, issued instructions to be followed in government offices, and the government of Karnataka issued a circular stating guidelines for factory management in the state. The state of Haryana also notified guidelines for factories and establishments.
Moreover, in its order dated March 16, the Supreme Court of India in Re: Contagion of COVID 19 in prisons, provided that some state governments shall declare COVID-19 an epidemic, in order to invoke the emergency provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897.
Consequently, these states announced regulations in their respective states to regulate hospitals and their working; to impose restrictions on individuals, institutions and organizations; to empower certain personnel; etc.
Section 3 of the Act makes disobeyance of any regulation made under the act a punishable offence under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, which sets out punishment for disobeying an order duly promulgated by public servant.
The Disaster Management Act, 2005
As an additional measure, the Union Government on March 11, 2020 also invoked Section 69 of The Disaster Management Act, 2005, enacted to provide for the effective management of disasters. The provision reads:
"The National Executive Committee, State Executive Committee, as the case may be, by general or special order in writing, may delegate to the Chairperson or any other member or to any officer, subject to such conditions and limitations, if any, as may be specified in the order, such of its powers and functions under this Act as it may deem necessary."
Pursuant to this, the Centre delegated certain powers to the Home Secretary (Chairman, National Executive Committee) in order to take necessary measures to curb the virus, by providing assistance to states under the State Disaster Response Fund, constituted under Section 48(1)(a) of the Act. Further, a directive was issued to all the states specifying ‘list of items and norms of assistance for containment of COVID-19 virus in India, eligible from SDRF’.
Section 33 and 34 of the Act also empowers District Authorities to give directions and take measures for the prevention or mitigation of disaster, or to effectively respond to it. The authorities have been empowered to give directions for the release and use of resources; to control and restrict the entry of persons; to provide essentials such as shelter, food, healthcare, etc. to people; to procure exclusive or preferential use of amenities from any authority or person; amongst other things.
Moreover, to tackle the spread of rumors relating to COVID-19, stringent action has been taken against people involved in performing acts punishable under Section 54 of the Act which lays down that, “whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic, shall on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.”
Hand Sanitisers and Masks: Essential Commodities
As Coronavirus cases increase, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution issued a notification dated March 13, to declare masks and hand sanitisers as Essential Commodities up to June 30, 2020 under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955. Further, an advisory was also issued under the Legal Metrology Act, 2009.
Pursuant to this decision, states can now ask manufacturers of masks and hand sanitisers to enhance their production capacity of these items and make the supply chain smooth. And under the Legal Metrology Act, 2009, the states can ensure that both these items are sold at not more than their Maximum Retail Price (MRP). These decisions come in order to regulate the production, quality; distribution etc. of masks and hand sanitisers; smoothen the sale and availability of these items; and carry out operations against orders speculators and those involved in over pricing, black-marketing, etc.
Travel and Visa Restrictions
The Bureau of Immigration, Ministry of Home Affairs to this effect has issued an advisory relating to ‘Travel and Visa Restrictions related to COVID-19.’
As per the advisory, from March 18 to March 31, passengers coming from the European Union have been prohibited from entering India. Further, passengers coming from or transiting through UAE, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, after March 18, are to be quarantined for a period of 14 days. And those passengers who have visited China, Korea, Iran, Italy, Spain, France and Germany on or after February 15, will also be quarantined for the same period.
Additionally, the advisory has also strongly advised Indian nationals to refrain from travelling to China, Italy, Korea, Japan, France, Spain and Germany; and has further suspended most visas of those who have not entered India with effect from March 13, except those issued to diplomats, official passport holders; those in UN/ International Organisations; or on employment/project visas; or those who are operating aircrew of scheduled commercial airlines.
Furthermore, under the advisory, any Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) Card Holders travelling to India, except from restricted countries such as France, Germany, United Kingdom, etc., are required to obtain fresh Indian Visas from Indian Mission/ Post. And any foreign national, who intends to travel to India for compelling reasons, may also have to contact the nearest Indian Mission for fresh visas.
The authors are students are fourth year law students of the Amity Law School, Delhi (GGS IP University).