By Vinayak Sharma
In consequence of the increasing attacks against the doctors and other healthcare workers during the pandemic of COVID-19, the Government introduced the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 which essentially seeks to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. While this Ordinance apparently seems to be indefectible, especially, during the present time when the situation is embroiled with uncertainty, it is noteworthy that there are several problems associated with this Ordinance that are crucial to be addressed before it may find a permanent place as a law in the next parliamentary session.
It primarily brings in penal provisions with respect to the punishment of offences mentioned therein and also includes restorative provisions for both financial and material loss caused. While these provisions are laudable, they apply only after the termination of the trial for the concerned offence. Thus, it does not provide any immediate recourse to the victim which it may be reasonable and necessary to provide, for example, any medical aid, or temporary compensation, etc.
It is discernible that any experience that causes a threat of violence results in stress and trauma too, thus, any legislation or ordinance which aims to protect the healthcare workers from these violent acts should involve a provision that accounts for such an injury as well but this Ordinance clearly fails to do the same. In addition thereto, the Ordinance also doesn’t provide free legal service or legal assistance to the victim during the course of the trial. Besides these substantive flaws, the Ordinance embraces some practical problems too. At a time when the police are busy enforcing the lockdown throughout the country, the ordinance expects the investigating officer to complete investigation within thirty days which may turn out to be impractical, and even if the investigation gets completed somehow, the judiciary, as the Ordinance lays down, is supposed to act “as expeditiously as possible”, particularly with respect to examination of witnesses that is supposed to be conducted on a day-to-day basis once the process has started, and until all the witnesses have been examined. This again sounds impractical, considering that the courts are hardly able to function properly in light of the current pandemic. The ordinance also allows for some relaxation in the process in a case when the Court finds it difficult to conduct such a trial timely and for the same, mandates the judge to record some reason, and once done, the trial may be held within six months, and this process may happen numerous times in the same manner. Thus, this way, the judge seems not bound by any authority to conclude the trial efficiently, and this allows him a scope where he may misuse this authority as the validity/impeccability of his reasons is not really concerned, and hence, the trial may prolong. Consequently, a proper remedy for the offence seems to be not meted out.
Further, some general issues befalling this Ordinance include, its ambiguous definition for the term, “healthcare personnel service”, which includes, “anyone who may come into contact with the affected patients while discharging their duties and thereby remains at risk.” This entails the position of essential workers like police, sanitation workers, etc, in dichotomy where though they have not expressly been excluded from the purview of the definition, they have not been specifically included either, thus, in case of any act of violence caused against them, this Ordinance doesn’t assure them recourse.
To sum up, it may be said that though the Ordinance concerns itself with a right aim, it is indeed gratifying to see that the persistent and recurrent instances of violence against the healthcare have finally gained public attention, the aforementioned problems too need to be adequately heard to before this Ordinance may gain a legislative validity.