New Delhi, April 2: The Covid-19 outbreak has breathed life into antiquated laws, including a 19th century colonial statute that gives authorities extraordinary powers to do just about anything to anybody to combat a contagious disease while offering no legal remedy.
In Maharashtra, authorities invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act to shut down corporate offices and impose a fine of Rs 1,000 for spitting in public in major cities of the state. Even industrial processes that require continuous operations would have to be scaled back with 50% staffing.
The 1897 law, introduced by the British to combat Bubonic Plague, has been described by historians as the most draconian colonial legislation. It gives full protection to authorities for any action taken, with a provision that says, “No suit or other legal proceeding shall lie against any person for anything done or in good faith intended to be done under this Act”.
Government officials said such laws were needed for smooth implementation of measures in the battle against a seemingly uncontrollable disease. Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray described the situation as a “World War”, referring to the disease that has globally killed more than 10,000.
Various states had earlier invoked relatively tame laws of the socialist era, such as the Essential Commodities Act — which usually hits the headlines when onion prices head towards Rs 100 per kg, or when it is enforced to control the prices of other commodities deemed essential. It is used by state governments to prevent hoarding and profiteering in times of scarcity and high inflation. Usually, the food and civil supplies departments of various states enforce it.
The Essential Services Maintenance Act is also back in action, The Economic Times reported. This law has mostly been used against strikes that cause public hardship. It empowers states to prevent disruption in essential services such as transportation (by land, water or air), electricity supply or operation of petrol pumps. Energy majors such as state-run NTPC, Indian Oil Corp, HPCL and BPCL are already maintaining uninterrupted supplies. And transport services, fire, water supply, police and defence services are also functioning normally.
These laws have recently been used by states and the Centre to control prices of masks, hand sanitisers and the alcohol used to make the product. These products were in short supply and prices had risen manifold. Himachal Pradesh procured N95 masks, surgical masks and hand sanitisers under the Essential Services Maintenance Act by amending the Himachal Hoarding & Profiteering Prevention Order. Food and consumer affairs minister Ram Vilas Paswan said the government will not hesitate to take further action to make sure essential goods and services are available to people at reasonable rates.
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