Covid-19: Disaster Act invoked for the 1st time in India

Mar 25, 2020 12:12 AM IST

New Delhi:

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The 21-day national lockdown imposed by the Narendra Modi government to combat the spread of Covid-19 , and which starts at 12.01 am Wednesday is the first time provisions of the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, are being invoked.

In an order issued by the home ministry, the home secretary as chairperson of the National Executive Committee of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) issued guidelines for the national lockdown for 21 days. The guidelines allow for essential services such as food, utilities, health care, and law and order. Many parts of the country were already under a lockdown till March 31.

A home ministry statement said the decision for a national lockdown was taken at a meeting of the NDMA chaired by the Prime Minister on Tuesday to ensure”uniformity in the measures adopted” and their implementation.

As on Monday evening, 32 states and Union Territories had enforced lockdowns with some ordering a curfew as well, leading to some confusion over what is allowed and what is not.

The lockdown means all rail and air services will also be suspended till April 15.

The statement said the uniform lockdown guidelines would ensure “effective measures” for social distancing needed to contain the spread of the pandemic. “The implementation of the orders will be monitored by MHA,” the statement said.

This marks the first time, since the law came into being after the 2004 Tsunami that hit the eastern coast of India killing about 10,000 people, that the NDMA has invoked it .

The sections 6 and 10, under which the lockdown order was issued, give the NDMA powers to prepare national plans for disaster management and ensure its implementation through the state disaster management authorities in a uniform manner.

By invoking this provision, the authority will become the nodal central agency for coordinating with all state governments to contain the pandemic, ensure uniform disaster management plans, and provide relief funds to the states for disaster management.

“The invocation of the act will ensure better coordination between the Centre and the states and create health infrastructure to cope with community spread, if it happens very fast. The National Disaster Management Act has more clarity than the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897, a colonial era law,” said former NDMA vice-chairperson MS Reddy.

Reddy termed the national lockdown as important decision and said invoking the law will give the government much more power than the Epidemic Act does; the health ministry and several state governments had issued lockdown orders under the latter.

He said the disaster law empowers the Centre to take action against anyone obstructing implementing of national plans, including government officials. “The National Disaster Management Act has much more clarity about various issues related to any calamity including health pandemic,” he said.

The law provides a wide range of powers to the NDMA chairperson, the PM, to seek any “men or material resources” for the purposes of emergency response across the entire country or any specific part of the country. It gives emergency powers to the chairperson to deal with the disaster doing away with bureaucratic processes. The law also allows state disaster management authority chairpersons to exercise similar powers within the state jurisdictions.

Subhash Kashyap, former secretary general of Lok Sabha, said the powers under the disaster law could create a parallel system of disaster management to help doctors and paramedics and can augment government services.

The Constitution does not provide the Centre direct powers to declare a national emergency for medical and pandemic reasons.

There are three types of national emergencies --- national security (Article 352), state (Article 356) and financial (Article 360) defined under the Constitution. While national emergency has been invoked thrice, state emergencies have been imposed several times. Financial emergency has never been imposed.

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    Chetan Chauhan is National Affairs Editor. A journalist for over two decades, he has written extensively on social sector and politics with special focus on environment and political economy.

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