Coronavirus Outbreak: The Disaster Management Act explained; it sits at the heart of fight against the pandemic

The Disaster Management Act provides the administrative framework to take measures to deal with such incidents and allows the government to access funds set up for this purpose.

FP Staff March 26, 2020 07:39:38 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: The Disaster Management Act explained; it sits at the heart of fight against the pandemic

The nationwide lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday to contain the quickly spreading novel coronavirus is legally based on the Disaster Management Act, 2005. This law, among others, provides the legal framework for the restrictions on movement, action against rumour-mongering and to get access to emergency funds.

What is the Disaster Management Act?

The Disaster Management Act provides the administrative framework to take measures to deal with such incidents and allows the government to access funds set up for this purpose.

It defines a disaster as "a catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or man made causes, or by accident or negligence which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, and destruction of, property, or damage to, or degradation of, environment, and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area."

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Representational image. AP

This would ordinarily be understood to include incidents such as an earthquake, flood or fire, rather than a disease. However, on 14 March, the home ministry declared the coronavirus outbreak as a "notified disaster", thus bringing into play the provisions of the Disaster Management Act.

The Centre has invoked the Disaster Management Act to direct states to enforce a lockdown and restrict public movement. Section 10 (2)(l) of the Act allows the National Executive Committee to give directions to governments regarding measures to be taken by them. The Union home secretary, who is the chairman of the National Executive Committee, delegated power to the Union health secretary in this regard.

Significantly, the law also allows the government to get access to the National Disaster Response Fund, the State Disaster Response Fund and the District Disaster Response Fund.

Punitive measures

Sections 51 to 60 of the Act lay down penalties for specific offences. Anyone found obstructing any officer or employee from performing their duty will be imprisoned for a term which may extend to one year or fined, or be both. Further, if such an act of obstruction leads to loss of lives or imminent danger, then the person can be jailed for up to two years.

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The Disaster Management Act is also being used to rein in the circulation of fake news, which has been on an overdrive since the outbreak began. Section 52 of the Act states that people intentionally making false claims to get benefits from the government can be imprisoned for up to two years. Section 54 provides for one year's imprisonment for anyone circulating a "false alarm."

Section 58 of the Act further holds that if an offence is committed by a "company or body corporate," the person who was in charge at the time the offence was committed will be held liable. This provision can be used to ensure that workplaces allow employees to work from home, or that they pay employees their due wages.

Efficacy in context of disease outbreaks

The Act has been used in tandem with the Epidemic Diseases Act, with the latter providing the basis for containment measures such as restrictions on flights landing in India, and prohibiting gatherings beyond a certain number of people.

However, it is important to note that its primary objective is not to tackle disease outbreaks. The Epidemic Diseases Act, on the other hand, is a colonial-era law, which means it was enacted at a time when the concept of fundamental rights, as laid down in the Constitution, did not exist. The law is vaguely-worded, allowing the government to take temporary measures as it "shall deem necessary" to contain an outbreak.

An article in The Print quotes lawyer Pratik Patnaik as saying that the law lacks a framework of accountability and that notification under the law are purely executive actions.

It also quotes public health expert PS Rakesh as saying that there is a need for an integrated and comprehensive provision for the control of disease outbreaks.

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