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COVID-19: Penal provisions for enforcing social distancing

Updated: Jul 18



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About the Author:


Prof.(Dr.) Priya Sepaha

Director, Law Colloquy,

Author, Trainer, blogger, Youtuber



On 11 March 2020 WHO declared the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) outbreak as a pandemic (an epidemic that has spread worldwide, affecting a large number of people). The Union Government has invoked the powers under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to enhance preparedness and containment of the virus and declared COVID-19 a 'notified disaster' under the Disaster Management Act 2005.


To prevent the transmission of COVID-19 pandemic, the Union Government has invoked the powers under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and the Disaster Management Act 2005 to declare 21-days country-wide lockdown. As a precautionary measure District Magistrates have imposed prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 in several districts to curb the transmission.


A few days ago the Honourable PM had in his speech had explained in detail the nature of the disease, its symptoms, its mode of spread, the rapidity of its transmission, the key learnings from the experiences of other nations struggling to prevent the spread of this pandemic, the preparedness to prevent and treat it at various levels and above all the importance of social distancing in containing the spread of this disease.


It is essential to appreciate that such exemplary steps had to be taken keeping in view the fact that the public at large is not heeding to the advice of the authorities and not observing the protocol prescribed for social distancing. Some of the essential penal provisions, which have been invoked to enforce lockdown protocols are discussed below:


i. The Disaster Management Act, 2005


The object of the Act is to manage disasters, including preparation of mitigation strategies, capacity-building and more. A disaster is usually associated with a natural calamity such as a cyclone or an earthquake and so on. Even the definition of a disaster in Section 2 (d) of the Disaster Management Act states that a disaster means a "catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or man-made causes…". The Central Government has included the Covid-19 flare-up as "Notified Disaster" as a "critical medical condition or pandemic situation."


ii. Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897


Under this law, the Central Government, as well as state government, has the power to take special measures and prescribe regulations to prevent the spread of a "dangerous epidemic disease".


Penalty


Any person disobeying any regulation or order made under this Act shall be deemed to have committed an offence punishable under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code,1860.

iii. Criminal Procedure Code, 1973


a) Section 144 of CrPC: Power to issue an order in urgent cases of a nuisance of apprehended danger.


(1) In cases where, in the opinion of a District Magistrate, a Sub-divisional Magistrate or any other Executive Magistrate specially empowered by the State Government in this behalf, there is sufficient ground for proceeding under this section and immediate prevention or speedy remedy is desirable, such Magistrate may, by a written order stating the material facts of the case and served in the manner provided by section 134, direct any person to abstain from a certain act or to take certain order with respect to certain property in his possession or under his management, if such Magistrate considers that such direction is likely to prevent, or tends to prevent, obstruction, annoyance or injury to any person lawfully employed, or danger to human life, health or safety, or a disturbance of the public tranquillity, or a riot, of an affray.

(2) An order under this section may, in cases of emergency or in cases where the circumstances do not admit of the serving in due time of a notice upon the person against whom the order is directed, be passed ex parte.

(3) An order under this section may be directed to a particular individual, or to persons residing in a particular place or area, or to the public generally when frequenting or visiting a particular place or area.

(4) No order under this section shall remain in force for more than two months from the making thereof: Provided that, if the State Government considers it necessary so to do for preventing danger to human life, health or safety or for preventing a riot or any affray, it may, by notification, direct that an order made by a Magistrate under this section shall remain in force for such further period not exceeding six months from the date on which the order made by the Magistrate would have, but for such order, expired, as it may specify in the said notification.

(5) Any Magistrate may, either on his own motion or on the application of any person aggrieved, rescind or alter any order made under this section, by himself or any Magistrate subordinate to him or by his predecessor- in- office.

(6) The State Government may, either on its own motion or on the application of any person aggrieved, rescind or alter any order made by it under the proviso to sub- section (4).

(7) Where an application under sub- section (5) or sub- section (6) is received, the Magistrate, or the State Government, as the case may be, shall afford to the applicant an early opportunity of appearing before him or it, either in person or by pleader and showing cause against the order; and if the Magistrate or the State Government, as the case may be, rejects the application wholly or in part, he or it shall record in writing the reasons for so doing.



iv. Indian Penal Code, 1860

Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code- Disobedience to order duly promulgated by the public servant.

Whoever, knowing that, by an order promulgated by a public servant lawfully empowered to promulgate such order, he is directed to abstain from a certain act, or to take certain order with certain property in his possession or under his management, disobeys such direction, shall, if such disobedience causes or tends to cause obstruction, annoyance or injury, or risk of obstruction, annoyance or injury, to any person lawfully employed, be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one month or with fine which may extend to two hundred rupees, or with both; and if such disobedience causes or trends to cause danger to human life, health or safety, or causes or tends to cause a riot or affray, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees, or with both.

Explanation- It is not necessary that the offender should intend to produce harm or contemplate his disobedience as likely to produce harm. It is sufficient that he knows of the order which he disobeys, and that his disobedience produces, or is likely to produce, harm.


Section 269 of The Indian Penal Code- Negligent Act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life

Whoever unlawfully or negligently does any act which is, and which he knows or has reason to believe to be, likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both.

Section 270 of the Indian Penal Code- Malignant Act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life

Whoever malignantly does any act which is, and which he knows or has reason to believe to be, likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

Section 271 of the Indian Penal Code- Disobedience to quarantine rule

Whoever knowingly disobeys any rule made and promulgated by the Government for putting any vessel into a state of quarantine, or for regulating the intercourse of vessels in a state of quarantine with the shore or with other vessels, or for regulating the intercourse between places where an infectious disease prevails and other places, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both.

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