Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897: British era law invoked to deal with outbreak has long history with Pune, Maharashtra

Sushant Kulkarni
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On March 11, the central govt had asked states and UTs to invoke the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to ensure that the advisories from the Union Health ministry can be enforced in places affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. (File/Representational Image)

The colonial era Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, which was invoked by the state government to deal with coronavirus outbreak, has a historic link with Pune, which was worst affected by the Bubonic Plague of 1897 when the law was enacted. The events of the time, which include assassination of Plague Commissioner WC Rand, have lasting imprint on the history of the city.

On March 11, the central government had asked states and Union territories to invoke the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to ensure that the advisories from the Union Health ministry can be enforced in places affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. The Maharashtra government enforced the Act on the midnight of March 13. Since then, the Pune district administration has issued multiple orders. The Act has been brought into force many times including as recent as the Swine Flu outbreak in 2009.

Officials have said the orders by the state government and district administration issued under the Act are being mostly followed voluntarily by residents especially in affected areas and experts say such self discipline would be of great help in controlling the spread of the virus.

Back in 1896-97, the picture was different in many ways. The then Bombay Province of British India was one of the worst affected in the country by the Bubonic Plague and Pune or then Poona, saw thousands of deaths, mass exodus of people. In the early months of 1897, the epidemic had caused a havoc in Pune and the British government enacted the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 giving sweeping powers to government officials to search and inspect houses, detain people to be taken away and issue any orders to stop the spread of disease.

Historian Pandurang Balkawade said, “It was one of the worst times in the history of Pune. To control the spread of the disease, special powers were needed and the British rulers enacted the law giving extraordinary powers to officials. A Special Plague Committees was established with ICS officer WC Rand as its head. No one will disagree that among common people, hygiene was an issue. While the law was a necessity, but the way British officers and soldiers implemented the Act was brutal and inhuman at times. In spite of voices raised at the time by people, including Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the practice continued. The anger among people led to Chapekar brothers assassinating Rand. There can be different opinions about whether what Chapekar brothers did was right or wrong. It certainly was an expression of a populace living under a foreign rule.”

On the night of June 22, 1897, three Chapekar brothers — Damodar, Balkrushna and Vasudeo — shot at Rand after he was returning along with his military escort from the celebration of Diamond Jubilee of coronation of Queen Victoria. The celebrations were held on the campus of government house that now has Pune University campus on it and the incident had taken place on today’s Ganeshkhind Road.

According to records, the military escort was first shot by mistake and after realising the mix up, they shot Rand. While military escort Lieutenant Ayrest was killed on the spot, Rand died in hospital two weeks later.

The Act, among other things, states that any person violating the orders of the government will be punished under Section 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) of the Indian Penal Code. It also gives legal protection to officials who are implementing it. Citing the Act, the Pune district collector has till now put restrictions on public functions in Pune and has also closed anganwadis among other such measures.

A senior official from the district administration said, “The law has been invoked time and again in Maharashtra and other parts of the country simply because it has been effective in situations of epidemic...While the law does give powers to take punitive actions, till now citizens have been abiding by the orders. There are checks and balances in place and it’s not possible that provisions will be misused.”