Disaster Act revoked

Source: By Kaunain Sheriff M: The Indian Express

Since 24 March 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has been issuing orders and guidelines for the containment of Covid-19. The MHA has been issuing directions to states through the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), under The Disaster Management Act, 2005.

Two years on, with the country’s active caseload falling to 22,427 cases and 182.23 crore cumulative vaccine doses administered (as of March 24, 2022), the MHA has asked states to “appropriately” discontinue the guidelines on containment of Covid-19.

What is The Disaster Management Act, 2005?

Parliament enacted The Disaster Management Act, 2005 to provide for the effective management of disasters. The law lays down the institutional mechanism for drawing up and monitoring the implementation of disaster management plans. The focus is on the prevention and mitigation of disasters, and on swift response to disaster situations.

Before the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, guidelines have been issued under the law on the management of earthquakes, chemical disasters, droughts, hospital safety, urban flooding, etc. Under what section of The Disaster Management Act has the MHA been issuing orders on containment measures for Covid-19?

Under the law, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), headed by the Prime Minister, has been constituted. A National Executive Committee, which has the Union Home Secretary and members from various ministries, assists the NDMA.

Section 10 of The Disaster Management Act deals with the powers and functions of this national executive committee. This section also empowers the National Executive Committee to lay down guidelines for or give directions to, the concerned Ministries or Departments of the Government of India, the State Governments and the State Authorities regarding measures to be taken by them in response to any threatening disaster situation or disaster.

It is under this section that the Union Home Ministry has been issuing guidelines for the containment of Covid-19.

What was the last important order passed on containment of the pandemic under the DM Act?

In December last year, in the backdrop of the emergence of the highly infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus, the MHA had directed the district authorities to implement evidence-based containment measures.

The MHA had also issued orders to district magistrates on the enforcement of social distancing. It had specifically directed them to use provisions of section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, as far as possible, to enforce social distancing.

Any person violating these measures will be liable to be proceeded against as per the provision of section 51 of 60 of the DM Act, besides legal action under Section 188 of the IPC, and, other legal provisions, as applicable,” the Home Secretary had told the states.

With cases declining, on 25 February this year, the MHA passed an order to the states that it can ease the restrictions and implement a risk assessment-based approach on the opening of economic activities. Thereafter, night curfews and restrictions under section 144 were relaxed by district authorities around the country.

What is the latest order? What is the significance?

In the order issued on 23 March 2022, the MHA has advised all states to “appropriately” discontinue after 31 March the guidelines that were issued under the DM Act for Covid-19 containment measures. The order effectively signals a return to full normalcy from 1 April 2022.

On the ground, this means that shopping complexes and cinema halls may be allowed to operate at full capacity. States can also resume social gatherings and congregations, and offline classes in educational institutions. However, public health measures to detect a possible new surge in cases have to be implemented.

What will the state have to continue to implement?

The Health Ministry directed the states to constantly review emerging data on new cases based on sustained testing at the district level. It has said that restrictions and relaxations should be taken after proper analysis of the local situation, including the emergence of new clusters, case positivity, the geographical spread of cases, and hospital infrastructure preparedness.

States have also been asked to watch the trajectory of cases in areas reporting positivity rate above 10% and bed occupancy more than 40% on either oxygen support or ICU beds, and implement containment and restriction measures in these areas.

The Health Ministry has directed states to monitor influenza-like illness on a regular basis for early warning signals. It also asked them to focus on genome sequencing to capture early warning signals of new variants of the coronavirus. Most significantly, it has asked the states to still follow the use of masks in public spaces.