The Lok Sabha on September 21 passed a legislation that provides for up to seven years imprisonment for those attacking healthcare workers fighting the coronavirus or any other pandemic.
The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Bill, 2020, will replace an ordinance issued by the government in April. With the Lok Sabha approving it, it will soon become an act, amending a 123-year-old legislation.
The government had introduced the ordinance on April 22 to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, to make incidents of attack on health workers treating COVID-19 patients a non-bailable offence, with a penalty and a jail term of up to seven years.
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said this was "an empowering legislation and states could make additions to the act." "The ordinance has given a very strong message to perpetrators of violence against medical professionals and health workers during the pandemic," he said.
"We have all noticed that there has been a dramatic decline in the incidents of violence against health workers all over the country," the minister added.
The bill attempts to ensure that during any situation similar to the ongoing pandemic, there is zero-tolerance to any form of violence against healthcare workers and damage to property.
Under the proposed act, the commission of such violence will be punishable with imprisonment for a term of three months to five years and with a fine of ₹50,000 to ₹2,00,000.
In case of a grievous injury, the imprisonment shall be for a term of six months to seven years and with a fine of ₹1-5 lakh.
"The ordinance had to be brought as incidents of harassment and violence against health workers were rising amid a lack of awareness about coronavirus," the health minister said, adding that there was a need to have a central law to put in place a prohibitory mechanism to stop such activities
Under the bill, there is also a provision that says the "offender would be presumed to be guilty of the offence unless proved otherwise by the accused defender." Congress' Adhir Chowdhury said "this was in complete deviation from the principles of the country's criminal law."
T Sumathy Thangapandian of the DMK said the bill talked about violence against healthcare personnel during the pandemic, questioning what would be the case after the pandemic ended.