Why Uddhav Thackeray wants India to have a public policy to control crowding

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to formulate a national policy to stop people from crowding a...

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to formulate a national policy to stop people from crowding at one place for social, political and religious purposes in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Thackeray made this suggestion in a virtual meeting held by the prime minister on Friday during which he took stock of the coronavirus situation.

Even as the government is battling the COVID-19 pandemic, the crowding at public places is a huge challenge. The Centre should conceptualise a national-level policy to prevent public crowding from happening in the name of social, political and religious gatherings, the chief minister said.

How big an assembly be called a public gathering?

The World Health Organisation describes mass gathering as any "high profile international sporting events such as the Olympics or World Cups as well as international religious events such as the Hajj count as mass gatherings. However, lower profile conferences and events can also meet WHO’s definition of a mass gathering. An event counts as a “mass gatherings” if the number of people it brings together is so large that it has the potential to strain the planning and response resources of the health system in the community where it takes place."

Although the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not provide numbers to define small and large events, it, however, recommends avoiding large events and gatherings.

The US body says that large gatherings bring together many people from multiple households in a private or public space. Large gatherings are often planned events with a large number of guests and invitations. They sometimes involve lodging, event staff, security, tickets, and long-distance travel. In some instances, CDC’s large events guidance might apply to events such as conferences, trade shows, sporting events, festivals, concerts, or large weddings and parties.

The CDC defines small gatherings as informal in nature that may occur with family and friends people regularly socialize with, often at someone’s residence. They typically do not involve long-distance travel. Small gathering guidance might be more appropriate for social gatherings that are more intimate with close friends and family, such as small holiday parties, family dinners, and small special celebrations.

What are the risk factors during mass gatherings?

Any decision to hold an event during the COVID-19 pandemic, no matter how large or small, should rely on a risk-based approach. Several factors can contribute to the likelihood of attendees getting and spreading COVID-19 at large events. In combination, the following factors may either create higher or lower amounts of risk depending on the behaviour of the people present.

High or increasing levels of COVID-19 cases in the event location or the locations the attendees are coming from increase the risk of infection and spread among attendees.

Exposure during travel like in airports, airplanes, bus stations, buses, train stations, trains, public transport among others are all places where physical distancing may be challenging and ventilation may be poor.

Indoor events, especially in places with poor ventilation, pose more risk than outdoor events.

The longer the event is more is the risk of getting infected than shorter events. It has been already said that being within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more (over a 24-hour period) greatly increases the risk of becoming infected and requires quarantine. Moreover, events with more people increase the likelihood of being exposed.

Where are the legal drawbacks for India in dealing with the pandemic?

Suddenly caught in the grip of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, India's lack of a proper legal framework came to the fore to handle such a situation. The country is responding to the pandemic crisis by three different laws — the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 (EDA); the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (DMA); and the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC).

The Epidemic Diseases Act Of India, 1897: When in September 1896, Bubonic Plague hit the Indian shores, the British Parliament acted swiftly and enacted the Epidemic Act,1897 to curb the spread of plague in its colony. The Act, which has a total of four sections, is one of the mainstays for the government to tackle the pandemic.

  • Section 2 of the Act gives powers to the state government to inspect the person travelling if there is a suspicion that the individual may be infected and to segregate people suspected of being diagnosed with the disease in hospital, or temporary accommodations or otherwise.
  • Section 2A empowers the Central government to inspect ships and vessels leaving or arriving in India and also to detain such vessels if required.
  • Section 3 provides the penalties for disobeying the regulations made by the government under Sections 2 and 2A. The punishment for such disobedience shall be the same as Section 188 of the IPC. Section 188 of IPC provides for a minimum punishment of one month and maximum for six months and/ or fine of Rs 1000/- shall be meted out to the person who is in violation of the regulations/notification of the government.
  • Section 4 protects the government and its employees from any prosecution, civil or criminal, for doing anything in good faith.

The 124-year-old legislation does not define what constitutes a “dangerous epidemic disease” and is more fit for prevention rather than curb the spread of the disease. Although the Act gives unbridled powers to the government, there are neither any directions to the government to follow at the time of an epidemic nor any guidelines to form a special team to handle the situation. The archaic law is also silent on measures and places for isolation of suspected patients and makes no mention of vaccines and drugs.

Disaster Management Act, 2005: Section (2) of the Act defines “disaster” as a "catastrophe, mishap, calamity or grave occurrence in any area, arising from natural or manmade causes, or by accident or negligence which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, and destruction of, property, or damage to, or degradation of, environment, and is of such a nature or magnitude as to be beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area".

On 14 March last year, the Central government termed COVID-19 as a ‘notified disaster’ as a “critical medical condition or pandemic situation”. The Act allowed the Centre and states to enforce lockdown, restrict public movement and access to the National Disaster Response Fund, the State Disaster Response Fund and the District Disaster Response Fund. It further provisions for allocation of resources for prevention, mitigation, capacity building among others.

Indian Penal Code, 1860: Under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, people violating lockdown orders are being charged under Sections 188, 269 and 270. Sections 51 to 60 of the Act prescribes penalties for violators. The violators can be jailed for up to one year or fine, or both and in case of dangerous behaviour, the jail term can be extended to two years.

Section 144 of IPC is allowing state governments to prohibit a gathering of four or more people in a particular area so that the authorities can control crowding to prevent the spread of the virus.

What is the fate of The National Health Bill, 2009?

Had the National Health Bill, 2009 seen the light of the day, India would not have had to deal with such legal shortcomings that have cropped up because of the extraordinary pandemic situation.

The Bill aims to "provide for protection and fulfilment of rights in relation to health and wellbeing, health equity and justice, including those related to all the underlying determinants of health as well as health care; and for achieving the goal of health for all; and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto."

The Bill also defines epidemic as an occurrence of cases of a disease in excess of what is usually expected for a given period of time, and includes any reference to “disease outbreak” herein unless specifically stated otherwise" and communicable diseases as "illnesses caused by micro-organisms and transmissible from an infected person or animal to another person or animal."

It mandates the government to "take effective measures to prevent, treat and control epidemic and endemic diseases" and ensure "protection from and mitigation during... disease outbreaks/ epidemics, and other public health emergencies."

The Bill outlines clear provisions for "planning and implementing State health programmes for identifying, preventing and addressing conditions of public health importance including epidemics and outbreaks through surveillance; epidemiological tracking, programme evaluation, and monitoring; testing and screening programs; treatment; abatement of hazardous and injurious substances and activities; administrative inspections; or other methods."

Significantly, in the list of enactments that must be subjected to compatibility review under Section 37 of the Bill, the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and the Disaster Management Act, 2005 also fall under its purview.

Where do other countries stand on preventing or restricting public gatherings?

Unlike India which is using Section 144 of IPC, a primarily law and order element to restrict public gatherings or the Disaster Management Act to impose lockdowns, the United Kingdom enacted the Coronavirus Act 2020, which empowers the British government under Schedule 22, Section 52 the powers to issue directions relating to events, gatherings and premises.

In Sweden, the Public Order Act determines the rules that apply in public places while the Mass Gathering Act in Indiana State plays the same role.

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