Flagging "significant deficiencies" in the Epidemic Diseases Act, the Law Commission has recommended to the government that either the law be suitably amended to address existing gaps or a comprehensive legislation be brought in to effectively deal with future epidemics.
The panel headed by Justice (retired) Ritu Raj Awasthi has submitted its report to the government, calling for an exhaustive overhaul of the law.
In his cover note to Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal, Justice Awasthi noted that the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed an unprecedented challenge for the Indian health infrastructure.
"In the course of dealing with this crisis, certain limitations in the legal framework relating to health were realised. While the government was quick to respond to the emerging situation, it was felt that a more comprehensive law could have enabled a better response to the crisis," he said.
The Law Commission, he said, holds the view that the existing legislation exhibits "significant deficiencies" in addressing the containment and management of future epidemics in the country as new infectious diseases or novel strains of existing pathogens may emerge.
The immediate response to COVID-19 such as the imposition of a lockdown was invoked under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, he recalled.
In light of the immediate challenges, especially those faced by the healthcare workers, Parliament amended the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 in 2020.
"However, these amendments fell short as critical gaps and omissions remained in the Act," he noted.
In its report, the law panel said that there is an "ardent need for comprehensive legislation" to deal with epidemics that provide for a coordinated response to unforeseen event.
Considering the modern scientific advancements, the new or the amended Act should not only give the government mere stipulated powers "rather it should shape appropriate response mechanisms in preventing and controlling epidemic diseases," it said.
The amended law or a new one must include a clear definition of an 'epidemic'.
"For taking the appropriate measures to contain and control the epidemic diseases; and to demarcate the power between Centre and State, the stages of the disease must be defined such as an 'Outbreak' which further leads to an 'Epidemic' and a 'Pandemic'," it recommended.
Similarly, the difference between 'quarantine' and 'isolation' should be clarified by appropriately defining these terms, it said.
The Act must focus on the government's duties in controlling or regulating the production, distribution, transportation and storage of necessary vaccines, medicines and other medical equipment, it said, adding that currently, there is no specification in the Act which ensures the availability of essential vaccines and drugs during epidemic situations.
The Epidemic Diseases Act should appropriately decentralise and demarcate the power between central, state and local authorities to regulate an unfolding epidemic crisis, it said.
The law panel also suggested that a flexible enforcement mechanism is required for prevention, control and management of epidemic diseases as per the stage of the spread of infectious or contagious disease.
"During COVID- I 9, to contain the spread of infection, various regulations pertaining to social distancing were enforced throughout the country. Hence, it becomes imperative to define such a term in the parent Act itself," the panel said.
It said that a more appropriate word which must be used is 'Physical Distancing' and it may be defined as "Physical Distancing: An exercise of maintaining sufficient physical distance between individuals to limit the spread of infection."
Proposing an 'Epidemic Plan' at the central level, it said the strategy should identify the nodal institutes and authorities which shall hold the primary responsibility of research and development of vaccines and other necessary drugs.
The government should also develop a mechanism to coordinate between public and private medical research institutes, vaccine production companies and raw material suppliers so as to effectively manage the chain of vaccine research and its production.
"By enacting provisions in the Epidemic Plan, the central government should regulate the purchase, supply, transportation, storage, distribution, and sale of such necessary vaccines and lifesaving drugs, (to avoid hoarding)," it stressed.
Referring to enhanced penalty provisions, it noted that currently, the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, as amended, provides two types of penalties.
First is in respect to contravention of any provision, order or rule made under the Act, which is punishable under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.
The second penalty was added by the 2020 amendment Act for commission or abetment of violence against healthcare service personnel or causing damage to any property as defined under the Act.
"Thus, although the existing Act stipulates penalty for contravention of its provisions, the penalty as stated in Section 188 of the IPC is not stringent enough to act as an effective deterrent," it observed.
The panel took up "a comprehensive review of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897" on a suo-motu basis.
In the report, the committee further stated that the 'Epidemic Plan' should contain a broad framework for imposing lockdown and for imposing restrictions on the movement of people and vehicles.
Apart from quarantine and isolation measures, the Epidemic Plan must contain guidelines for proper disinfection and decontamination, treatment of animals, goods, enclosures and any other place or substance to maintain hygiene and prevent any spread from such objects and places.