Epidemic Disease Act 1897 – Coming Challenges

India is witnessing an epidemiological transition. India is facing a dual burden of diseases in the 21st century, as they struggle to contain communicable diseases. By imposing various acts and legislatures, India is also facing the task to address the rise of chronic non-communicable diseases.

With every life-threatening outbreak, we come across the words epidemic and pandemic imprecisely. The COVID-19 outbreak prevailing now, helps us recall the same.

Both words comprise –demic and are used for disease occurrences. But here, they do not mean the same thing. This resemblance is a prime reason why many individuals use these words interchangeably. The crucial difference between the two about scale and severity. 

An epidemic disease affects many individuals at the same time. It holds the potential to spread from person to person rapidly in a country or region.

The World Health Organization (WHO) further specifies the epidemic as occurring at the level of a region or community.

In contrary to an epidemic, a pandemic disease is an epidemic that has spread over a large area probably to an entire country or continent and even the whole world.

The WHO more specifically defines a pandemic as “a worldwide spread of a new disease”. The COVID-19 outbreak has been declared a pandemic due to the global spread and severity of the disease.

Legal frameworks are imperative all through an emergency situation. They define the scope of the government’s answers to public health emergencies and also, the obligations and privileges of residents.

In this framework, it is significant to crucially assess the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. It’s bearing in the prevailing situations and whether it can keep up with the recent global outbreaks and from accurate measures for disease control. 

The intention of the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 is to make sure the spread of disease is under control. Adapting habits of least or no communication has been working really well to keep it under control. It was passed to contain the epidemic of bubonic plague that broke out in Bombay state during the pre-independence period.

The Governor-General of pre-independent India deliberated special powers upon the local authorities to device necessary measures to contain the epidemic.

The Epidemic Diseases Act is one of the shortest Acts in India, encompassing four sections only.

  1. The first section explains the title and the extent.
  2. Section 2 of the act distributes powers to the central and state government to implement safety measures. Rules and regulations that are necessary to hold the spread of disease.
  3. Section 3 of the said act lay down consequences for contravention of the regulations, in accord with Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.
  4. Section 4 lays down the provisions for legal protection to the officers acting under the Act.

Conferring to the provisions under section 2 of the Act, which designates the powers of the government in any such situation, it says:

If any part of the state faces threat by an outbreak of disease, and the ordinary provisions of the act would not be sufficient, then the state may take necessary steps. They may take extraordinary measures for the safety of society.  Along with that, a public declaration prescribing the use of these measures or rules which the society should follow.

The state government may introduce guidelines for scrutiny of people traveling by railway or otherwise. Similarly, the separation or isolation in the hospital of people with the inspecting officer of having any such disease.

Section 3 states that penalty up to imprisonment of 6 months or fine amounting to ₹1000 or both shall be imposed who contravenes any such regulation prescribed by the act.


The epidemic disease act is 123 years old legislation and no amendments were made to it post-independence and thus has major limitations in this era of changing priorities in a public health emergency.

The influences leading to the spread of communicable diseases have also developed over the years.

Some mediums which may increase the spread of such diseases 

Transportation, relocation, urbanization, increasing contact with animals and birds, man-made environmental changes, changing climatic conditions, mass food making, etc. All these activities increase the spread of such diseases and preventive measures against these should be in regular practice.

The Epidemic Diseases Act requires amendments in the fluctuating scenario. 

The Epidemic Diseases Act is not in line with the present-day kind of disease prevention and comeback. 

For instance, the Act places too much importance on isolation or quarantine procedures, but is silent on the other important methods for prevention and control of the outbreak, such as vaccination, observation and organized public health response.

The political situation in the country and central and state government relationships have amended. The Act of 1897 is not up to date to deal with the prevention and control of communicable disease outbreak in the prevailing situation.