The Essence of Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and Essential Commodities Act 1955

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Parvedge Haider

Following the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic situation, the study and reshuffling of memories about Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and Essential Commodities Act 1955 might be necessary. The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 is a law which was first enacted to tackle bubonic plague in Bombay state in former British India. The aim of that Act is to provide for the better prevention of the spread of Dangerous Epidemic Diseases. The Essential Commodities Act is an act of Parliament of India which was established to ensure the delivery of certain commodities or products, the supply of which if obstructed owing to hoarding or black marketing would affect the normal life of the people. This includes foodstuff, drugs, fuel (petroleum products) etc.

Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 is meant for containment of epidemics by providing special powers that are required for the implementation of containment measures to control the spread of the disease. The Act has been routinely used to contain various diseases in India such as swine flu, cholera, malaria and dengue.

Legal provisions

Power to take special measures and prescribe regulations as to dangerous epidemic disease

  • When at any time the Government is satisfied that any part thereof is visited by, or threatened with, an outbreak of any dangerous epidemic disease, the Government, if it thinks that the ordinary provisions of the law for the time being in force are insufficient for the purpose, may take, or require or empower any person to take, such measures and, by public notice, prescribe such temporary regulations to be observed by the public or by any person or class of persons as it shall deem necessary to prevent the outbreak of such disease or the spread thereof, and may determine in what manner and by whom any expenses incurred (including compensation if any) shall be defrayed.

Penalty

Any person disobeying any regulation or order made under this Act shall be deemed to have committed an offence punishable under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860).

Protection to persons acting under Act

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.

Essential Commodities Act 1955

The Essential Commodities Act was enacted in 1955. It has since been used by the Government to regulate the production, supply and distribution of a whole host of commodities it declares ‘essential’ in order to make them available to consumers at fair prices. Additionally, the government can also fix the maximum retail price (MRP) of any packaged product that it declares an “essential commodity”.

The lists of items under the Act include drugs, fertilizers, pulses and edible oils, and petroleum and petroleum products. The Government can include new commodities as and when the need arises, and takes them off the list once the situation improves.

If the Government finds that a certain commodity is in short supply and its price is spiking, it can notify stock-holding limits on it for a specified period. Anybody trading or dealing in the commodity, be it wholesalers, retailers or even importers are prevented from stockpiling it beyond a certain quantity.

If any restrictions have been imposed by the Government, the traders have to immediately sell into the market any stocks held beyond the mandated quantity. This improves supplies and brings down prices. If any of the shopkeepers and traders does not comply with the instruction, Government agencies may conduct raids to get everyone under the rules of law. The excess stocks are auctioned or sold through fair price shops.

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