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India under Covid-19 lockdown: All about the disaster management law

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday announced a 21-day national lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 by invoking the Disaster Management Act, 2005. The law gives the Central government powers to take quick policy decisions and impose restrictions on people to manage a disaster. Here’s an explainer on what the law entails for people and governments in these difficult times.

What is the Disaster Management Act (DMA)?

DMA is a national law that empowers the Central government to declare the entire country or part of it as affected by a disaster and to make plans for mitigation to reduce “risks, impacts and affects” of the disaster. The Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 does not provide such powers. DMA covers all man-made and natural disasters which are beyond the coping capacity of a community. It also provides powers to the government to act against anyone not abiding by government orders and regulations.

Why did the government use its powers under DMA?

Till Monday, the Central and state governments were notifying Covid-19 management orders under the Epidemic Disease Act, which was envisaged to prevent spread of a disease (and through sea). The epidemic law was enacted to control bubonic plague in Mumbai coming through the sea route and to prevent social gatherings. Thereafter, many state governments have adopted the law and in 2018, the law was enforced in Gujarat to control spread of Cholera.

Never before has the epidemic law been invoked to control a pandemic. That’s not surprising. For instance, to act against anyone defying orders under the law a warrant issued by a court is needed. The law also does not have provisions to enforce mandatory quarantines or social distancing, to provide for quick release of money, or to take over government or private buildings to provide relief. It gives powers to health officials but very little to the law enforcement agencies, which are now implementing complete lockdown. That’s why this lockdown had to be under DMA.

How does DMA help?

MS Reddy, former vice-chairman of National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), said the disaster law provides all powers to the state to deal with any disaster, including a biological one. The authority can act against any government official or director of a company for defying its orders. The law provides for detaining a person without warrant and a jail term of one year for first offences. It also provides for developing national and state level mitigation plans with a clear chain of command .

What were the sections under which Covid-19 was declared a national disaster?

Under Sections 6 and 10 of the law, PM Modi, who is also chairperson of the authority, declared Covid-19 as a national disaster so that the entire country has uniform lockdown regulations, which are easier to implement, especially on which services and functions are allowed and what are not. For instance, before the national lockdown was enforced under the law, state specific lockdowns and a lockdown of 82 districts by the federal government -- both under the epidemics law -- were inconsistent about the use of private vehicles. Under DMA, states are required to implement the national plans.

Can NDMA help in a tackling a pandemic?

Yes, especially with regard to providing relief and rehabilitation. Reddy said the authority has protocols to deal with biological or epidemiological disasters such as Covid-19, for which special isolated health facilities have to be created. The national and state disaster relief forces are trained to deal with biological disasters, especially with regard to immediate evacuation of the people. This may be needed is a major Covid-19 hotspot emerges. The authority has already notified guidelines to provide cash relief and compensation to poor people across the country. The Centre and the state governments can create disaster mitigation funds.

How does DMA empower the governments?

The law authorises the NDMA’s chairperson, the Prime Minister, to take decisions to deal with the pandemic, including deciding on relief for victims and special measures for the needy. The state chief minister may also invoke special powers under the law for dealing with the pandemic. Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat are some states that have invoked these powers. The powers of the PM and CMs are the same under the law, except in case of Delhi, where the Lieutenant-Governor, has these powers. The LG is the chairman and Delhi CM is vice-chairman of the state disaster management authority.

Are penalties under the law stricter than under Indian Penal Code?

Yes, as the law provides for detention of any person for defying government orders including government officials and directors of the private companies. The jail term prescribed is one year for first offence and two years for the second. The officials notified as nodal officers -- district magistrates in this case -- can summon anyone to perform duties for disaster mitigation and relief. A department head could be held responsible for any dereliction of duty by the personnel reporting to him. A complaint against any official can be made only to chairpersons of national, state or district disaster management authorities.

Does this provide for taking over powers of the state government by the Centre?

No, the disaster law clearly defines the powers of the Central government, states and the districts. It also does not prevent the governments from using other laws such as Indian Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure to prevent spread of Covid-19. It, in fact, gives powers to the local authorities to act swiftly in line with national plan and state plans to control impacts of a disaster.

Source: ht