The Rajya Sabha Saturday passed a legislation that provides for up to seven years in jail for those attacking doctors and healthcare workers fighting the COVID-19 outbreak or during any situation akin to the current pandemic.
The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Bill, 2020, was introduced by Health Minister Harsh Vardhan in the Upper House on Saturday.
The Bill was supported by the members across party lines, however, some suggested to add in its purview hospital sanitary staff, ASHA (accredited social health activist) workers and 'Corona warriors' in emergency services such as police and personnel from other departments.
Besides, members also pointed out overcharging by some private hospitals in the name of COVID-19 treatment, turning this crisis into an 'opportunity' for them.
The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Bill, 2020, will replace an ordinance issued in April by the government.
The government had brought the ordinance on April 22 to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, to make incidents of violence on health workers treating COVID-19 patients a non-bailable offence with provisions of a penalty and a jail term of up to seven years.
The Bill intends to ensure that during any situation akin to the current pandemic, there is zero-tolerance to any form of violence against healthcare personnel and damage to property.
Under the proposed Act, the commission or abetment of such violence will be punishable with imprisonment for a term of three months to five years, and with a fine of Rs 50,000 to Rs 2,00,000.
In case of causing grievous hurt, the imprisonment shall be for a term of six months to seven years and with a fine of Rs 1,00,000 to Rs 5,00,000.
While, moving the Bill for passage in the Upper House, the Health Minister said such incidents have declined since the ordinance was issued in April.
"We have all noticed that there has been a dramatic decline in the incidents of violence against health workers all over the country," he said.
Vardhan explained that the ordinance had to be brought as incidents of harassment and violence against health workers were rising amid a lack of awareness about coronavirus.
"Everyone was feeling sad and bad. That was the time the government thought of taking a proactive step. When the government reviewed, it found there were minimal laws and powers in some states.
"There was a need to have a central law to put in place a prohibitory mechanism to stop such activities," Vardhan said.
Binoy Viswam of the Communist Party of India, who moved a statutory resolution on the Bill, said there are serious lapses in it as it does not address the issue of violence on health professionals within the hospitals.
Many hospitals are not paying the salaries to doctors and nurses, PPE kits are not being given and safety concerns are being ignored -- these issues have not been addressed by the Bill, he added.
Participating in the debate, Congress' Anand Sharma said there is a need to expand the protection to include the police and personnel of various other services, engaged in providing relief.
"There are personnel from various other services, who are engaged in providing relief, managing the quarantine shelters. They should also be for the future included into the expanded list of people, who need support and protection," he said.
He also suggested to immediately set up a national task force for stakeholders consultation, with the states and institutions, including the scientific community and medical fraternity, for a comprehensive review and amendment to make the proposed Act contemporary and add lessons learnt during the crisis.
Derek O'Brien of the TMC charged the Centre with interfering in the functioning of states through the Bill. "There are sinister provisions in the Bill. The States must be authorised to take decisions.
Ram Gopal Yadav (Samajwadi Party) stressed the need for special provisions to penalise people and private hospitals thriving on COVID-19 crisis and taking it as a business.
He said there must be a provision to take action against those who sold PPE kits, masks, thermal scanners, ventilators, oxymeters and sanitisers at inflated prices.
Pilli Subhash Chandra Bose of Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party has asked the government to add other health workers into the bill along with doctors, while Vandana Chavan of the NCP suggested adding ASHA workers also.
R C P Singh of the Janata Dal-United suggested that the Bill include provision of compensation against damages of property.
K Ravindra Kumar of the Telugu Desam Party suggested that doctors and health professional be protected from arbitrary decisions of the state.
Sasmit Patra of Biju Janata Dal has asked the government to put the definition of pandemic into the Bill.
Replying to the discussion, Vardhan said various issues related to biological emergencies are covered under the National Disaster Management Act.
"I would like to inform the House that our government from the last 3-4 years is working on National Public Health Act to comprehensively deal with issues related to biological emergencies," Vardhan said.
On overcharging by private hospitals, Vardhan said the Central government has issued guidelines to states regarding charging by private hospitals, laboratories etc. "We have tried to rationalise these prices.
Manoj Kumar Jha (Rashtriya Janata Dal), K Keshava Rao (Telangana Rashtra Samiti), A Vijay Kumar (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), Saroj Pandey (Bharatiya Janata Party), M Shanmugam (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), Priyanka Chaturvedi (Shiv Sena), Veer Singh (Bahujan Samaj Party), P L Punia (Indian National Congress) also participated in the debate.