India needs to enact a COVID-19 law-THE HINDU-08-05-2020
The nationwide lockdown has been central to the government’s strategy to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. While the lockdown has helped contain community spread of the disease, a legal and legislative audit of this exercise has evaded scrutiny so far. As we are now in the seventh week of the lockdown, it is imperative and timely that we assess its underlying legislative soundness.
Laws governing lockdown:
The lockdown has been carried out by State governments and district authorities on the directions of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs under the Disaster Management Act of 2005, which was intended “to provide for the effective management of disasters and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”.
Under the Act, the National Disaster Management Authority was set up under the leadership of the Prime Minister, and the National Executive Committee was chaired by the Home Secretary.
On March 24, 2020, the NDMA and NEA issued orders directing the Union Ministries, State governments and authorities to take effective measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and laid out guidelines illustrating which establishments would be closed and which services suspended during the lockdown period. Taking a cue from the guidelines, the State governments and authorities exercised powers under the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 to issue further directions.
For instance, the Health and Family Welfare Department of Tamil Nadu issued a government order on March 23, 2020, to impose social distancing and isolation measures which directed “suspected cases and foreign returnees” to remain “under strict home quarantine” and people “to stay at home and come out only for accessing basic and essential services and strictly follow social distancing norms”.
The invoking of the Disaster Management Act has allowed the Union government to communicate seamlessly with the States. Another serious failing is that any violation of the orders passed would be prosecutable under Section 188 of Indian Penal Code, a very ineffective and broad provision dealing with disobedience of an order issued by a public servant.