History of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897

The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 carries a colonial baggage. It was introduced during a time when Colonial India witnessed over 10 million deaths due to the disease that had its birth in Hong Kong.3 Western medicine proved to be largely inefficient against the Bubonic Plague of 1896. The neglect of the Colonial Government cost them hundreds of lives each day. The Plague’s mortality rate of 60 percent made it obligatory for the Government to not only find a cure, but also control the spread of the disease. Looking at the magnitude of damage, a Plague Committee was constituted under the chairmanship of Prof. T.R. Frasor, Professor of Materia Medica at the University of Edinburgh.4 They made a report that documented the effect of the disease and the means to curtail transmission. The report concluded that the disease was highly contagious and recognized human transmission as a means of spread. The commission recommended necessary preventive measures to disinfect and evacuate infected places, to put a control over mass transit, and to improve sanitary conditions. The commission also suggested strengthening of public health services and development of laboratories.5 It was John Woodburn who first introduced the Epidemic Diseases Bill to the Governor General and the Council. 6 The Governor and the Council hastily passed the bill in February 1897 to have better control over the situation. The executive of the presidency towns had discretion to adopt any measures that could aid in limiting the transmission. The extraordinary nature of the act was considered well suited to the extraordinary situation at hand. Various researches were conducted, Plague Research Committees were formed. Their findings showed that the chief cause of the spread was lack of hygiene and poor sanitation across the country. Plague Research Laboratory was also set up in Bombay, to find a vaccine for the plague.

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