A ward in Parel hospital showing a plague stricken child, 1896. Caption and photo: Wellcome Library.
Many states in India have been invoking an old legal instrument in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, a two-page law that has remained largely unchanged for its 123 years of existence. That is, we are controlling a 2020 pandemic using a law that was developed when people hadn’t yet begun using radio-sets and vitamin supplements didn’t exist. Experts have argued that the law continues unchanged because it is more or less adequate for its purpose. In any case we have to make do with it for now, at least for the duration of the pandemic. In such a scenario it might be helpful to know a bit more about the origins and history of this legislation.
The 1896 bubonic plague epidemic of Bombay (now Mumbai), which began in September that year and gradually spread to most parts of the subcontinent, is a well-known major event from colonial India. As has been the case with epidemics, panic and scapegoating formed a major part of the societal response, and extreme measures dominated the administrative response. On January 19, 1897, about four months after the plague was identified in Bombay, Queen Victoria delivered a speech to both houses of the British Parliament, and in which she said she had “directed [her] Government to take the most stringent measures at their disposal for the eradication of the pestilence.” The Epidemic Diseases Act is the avatar these stringent measures eventually took.
A week after Victoria’s address, the Epidemic Diseases Bill was introduced in the Council of the Governor-General of India in Calcutta (now Kolkata) for the “better prevention of the spread of dangerous epidemic diseases.” The member who introduced it, John Woodburn, recognised that the powers mentioned in the Bill were extraordinary but necessary, especially that the people must “trust the discretion of the executive in grave and critical circumstances.”
Another member said that if the strict measures taken in the interests of public welfare caused any hardship, they should be “borne cheerfully” by people. There was some critique of the Bill’s hurried passage since little time had been earmarked for feedback from the general public. The government maintained that the Bill’s vague wording was meant to benefit local government bodies that could potentially apply the Act in a way that suited their particular conditions.
Thus the Act had an authoritarian streak to it right from the beginning – first in terms of the ideas that powered it – “public must trust the discretion of the government” – and second, in terms of the wide-ranging and almost unlimited powers it conferred on local authorities. According to conventional medical knowledge of the time, the plague’s spread could be prevented through measures like isolation of affected persons, cleansing houses, destroying or disinfecting clothes, and rigorously screening for signs of the plague (like swellings on some parts of the body). It was for the legally smooth implementation of such considerably drastic measures that this Act, and the immense power for government personnel, were considered necessary.
With debate over it lasting only a day, the Epidemic Diseases Act was passed on February 4, 1897. In a chronology that we are all too familiar with in contemporary India, there was at first a near-unanimous approval of the British government for what can be described as “finally doing something” for the problem at hand, only to later turn into disillusionment and rage when it dawned upon people that the cure was worse than the sickness. The Marathi nationalist leader Lokmanya Tilak was one such individual: he welcomed the Act at first but later became one of its fiercest critics.
Some of the most high-handed actions under the Act happened in Tilak’s town of Poona (now Pune) under the Indian Civil Services officer Walter Rand. A May 1897 memorandum from some people of Poona against Rand’s Plague Committee enumerates some of his excesses: “rough and ready methods used by the troops who carried off to hospitals not only patients, but even their relatives and passers-by; the indignity of public stripping of men and women for inspection; the disregard of social and religious susceptibilities; the forcible opening of houses and business premises, and the wanton destruction of property.”
In short, it soon became clear that all promises of responsible discretion that the lawmakers and the government had made during the passage of the draconian Act amounted to little once officers on the ground assumed the sanctioned powers. As historians like Prashant Kidambi have shown, the poor and the underprivileged suffered the most, like seeing their loved ones dragged to crowded hospital wards or their entire dwellings demolished in the name of sanitation. In a class distinction not very different from today’s high-end ‘pay-and-use quarantine’, the elite of the day were allowed to keep their plague-affected relatives at home but others had to compulsorily be isolated in hospitals.
Today, as a pandemic rages around us, the history of the country’s primary legal instrument against such a beast illuminates the paths we better not take. Most importantly, the Act inheres the colonial assumption of the inferiority of the general public – an assumption that should have no place in a free and democratic nation. As the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics noted, the Act “emphasises the power of the government but is silent on the rights of citizens.”
With more state governments expected to invoke the Act in the near future, it is essential that local authorities exercise their great powers with greater responsibility. Besides, while the Act might still make sense from political and bureaucratic perspectives – these institutions after all retain many of the dogmas of their colonial predecessors – it is anachronistic from a public health perspective. So once the pandemic comes under control, the Act will need to be repealed as quickly as possible, and replaced by a more comprehensive, modern and ethically robust law dealing with public health.
Kiran Kumbhar is currently studying the history of science at Harvard University, focusing on the history of medicine in modern India. He is also a physician and a health policy graduate.