Legality of the Lockdown

On 24 March, 2020, our hon’ble Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi declared 21 days lockdown which kept on extending further as the number of COVID 19 cases in India kept on increasing. Certain guidelines were laid down at both, centre and the state levels. As you would have observed that there were instances where some state governments issued guidelines in addition to what was issued by by the central government. Ever wondered whether imposing such a lockdown was legal or not? Well, by the time you get to the end of this article you will have a basic understanding of how it works. So keep reading.

The legality of such actions taken at different levels can be derived from the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (DMA) which aims “to provide for the effective management of disasters and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”

The Act provides for the establishment of Disaster Management Authorities at the Centre, State and District levels of which the Prime Minister, Chief Minister and the District Magistrate/Collector/Deputy
Commissioner respectively shall be the ex-officio Chairperson. Such authorities have the responsibility for laying down the policies, plans and guidelines for ensuring timely and effective response to disaster. But how does the law define the term “disaster”? Is the term “lockdown” defined in Indian Law? If yes, what does it mean and if no how and who gets to decide what it means? These are some of the obvious questions that might arise.

It is to be noted that, although, the term “Lockdown” has not been defined under Indian Law, it can be elucidated from the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1987 which “gives power to centre and state governments to take necessary actions to contain the outbreak of an epidemic even if such steps are not mentioned in the law practice or theory.” As we all know that scientists from around the world have still not found a credible vaccine for the same and considering India’s health care facilities, there would not have been enough resources to treat people if the number of people affected would have become large. Since the novel coronavirus is contagious, lockdown was a need of the hour to contain its outbreak.

But as mentioned earlier, the lockdown was inposed under the Disaster Management Act, 2005 , so it is essential to understand the meaning of the term “Disaster” which is defined as

a catastrophe, mishap, calamity or gave occurrence in any area arising from natural or man made causes, or by accident or negligence, which results in substantial loss of life or human suffering or damage to, and destruction of, property, or damage to, or degradation of, environment, and is of such a nature or mangnitude as to beyond the coping capacity of the community of the affected area.”

Section 2 (d), Disaster Management Act, 2005

Technically, if one goes by the definition, COVID-19 does not fall within the definition of “disaster” as per the Act, as it is a pandemic, not any calamity, mishap or catastrophe. So, as per the definition, lockdown which was imposed to contain its outbreak, cannot be imposed under the Act. But that happened; it was imposed under the Disaster Management Act. You might be by now contemplating as to how did that happen? How is that legal?

This was possible because the Ministry of Home Affairs declared COVID-19 as a “notified disaster” thus bringing it within the purview of section 2(d). This was done to increase the scope of its administrative powers so that quick actions could be taken.

You might also be aware that any action taken by the government must be in consonance with the Indian Constitution and some of you might have suffered from the restrictions on movement as a consequence of the lockdown. You might already have some idea about the fundamental rights that are guaranteed to every citizen by the Constitution of India. Yes, you are right! I am talking about Article 19 in Part III of the Indian Constitution. Many might have felt that the lockdown infringed their right to assemble peacefully wothout arms [Article 19 (1) (b) )] ; right to move freely throughout the territory of India [Article 19 (1) (d)] ; right to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business [Article 19 (1) (g)]. Many of you might thus say that its against the constitution, hence, illegal. But it is important to note that, these rights aren’t absolute, they are subject to reasonable restrictions as per the latter part of the Article. Hence, lockdown being a reasonable restriction, for public health and safety, is legal.