The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a worldwide pandemic. With over 2,00,000 confirmed cases and 8,000 deaths panic levels are on a rise around the globe. Flight cancellations, shutdown of public places, and remote functioning of offices have caused unprecedented disruption across industries worldwide. In many instances, people seem to be prepping as if it’s the end of the world.
But what does it really mean? Countries severely hit by COVID-19 such as Italy, Germany, China, and the US are preparing to the greatest extent possible. While they may not resort to building 10 new hospitals in two weeks like China, surge capacity is being evaluated, coordinated within their healthcare system coupled with several isolation policies and orders. Similarly, in India, the preliminary concerns for the government and its officials would revolve around the health and safety of all citizens disguised as an employee, customer, or neighbour. On these lines, Deputy Commissioner of Police Pranay Ashok imposed Section 144 over the Greater Mumbai region. Section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) imposes power to executive magistrate to restrict particular or a group of persons residing in a particular area while visiting a certain place or area. This move was implemented to prevent a danger to human life health and safety and to ultimately slow down the spread of COVID-19. The outbreak of novel coronavirus aka COVID-19 was the reason for such threat to human life perceived by the Magistrate. This order created confusion among the general public who assumed this to be an imposition of Section 144 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) pertaining to Unlawful Assembly.
The same was later clarified by the Mumbai Police that the order was specific in nature, applicable to ‘Tour Operators’ and not the public in general. This was done so that travel groups comprising domestic or foreign nationals in the area may be curtailed. The question that now lingers around is whether the imposition of Section 144 is the need of the hour amid this crisis. We must know that Section 144 is there to dispose of urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger by a competent magistrate so empowered to take such action. Although in India the number of reported cases is still low compared to other nations across the globe, one cannot ignore the harm already caused by the coronavirus due to its quick growth rate and the potential to further aggravate the situation.
The present order or any such order within the legal dictum would be a necessary tool to impose certain restrictions on public gatherings and movement and such order could not be challenged on the ground of infringing the Fundamental Right enshrined in Article 19(1)(b) or (d) of the Constitution as same was found to be well within the limit of reasonable restriction of 19(2) and (5). However, there are certain restrictions on the Magistrate exercising this power as he has to follow certain guiding principles laid down in the provision itself or that of Section 134. One peculiar instance in this regard is that this order under 144 cannot exceed more than two months but there is a proviso in the same clause granting the power with the State government to exceed such a time period to six months on satisfying itself for the need of such act. Given the situation where no cure has been found, these sections would need to be interpreted leniently it being a procedural law. However, the role of the Code of Criminal Procedure would be much less when it comes to a situation that we are foreseeing as the spread of COVID-19 to such a large extent. In India, we have the Indian Epidemic Disease Act, 1897 which not only grants the State and Central governments to take any temporary measure for controlling and prevent the outbreak of a disease but also punish the individual not complying with such orders through Section 188 of IPC (disobedience to order duly promulgated by Public Servant). A recent case has been lodged in this regard invoking this section of the Epidemic Act and even visas are being canceled under the ambit of this Act. In a recent poll, pharmaceutical companies and scientists acknowledged that it may take at least a year for a COVID-19 vaccine to be approved and made available to patients. So, for the time being, Section 144 Criminal Procedure Code seems adequate to control the specific movement of targeted groups that are either more prone to the outbreak or are a major threat to spreading the virus. This Section can also be invoked to prevent any situation of panic among the general public when it comes to shopping for essential commodities as we observe in different nations across the globe. Thus, we can rightly conclude that imposition of Section 144 is very well within its legal competency and can be effectively imposed to tackle this pandemic as the world impatiently awaits a COVID-19 vaccine.