The Lok Sabha on Monday passed a legislation that provides for up to seven years in jail for those attacking healthcare workers fighting the coronavirus or during any situation akin to the current pandemic.
The Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Bill, 2020, will replace an ordinance issued in April by the government. The Rajya Sabha has already passed the bill on Saturday.
With the Lok Sabha giving its nod, it will soon become an act, which is going to amend 123-year-old legislation.
The government had brought the ordinance on April 22 to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, to make incidents of violence on health workers treating COVID-19 patients a non-bailable offence, with provisions of a penalty and a jail term of up to seven years.
The bill intends to ensure that during any situation akin to the current pandemic, there is zero-tolerance to any form of violence against healthcare personnel and damage to property.
Under the proposed act, the commission or abetment of such violence will be punishable with imprisonment for a term of three months to five years and with a fine of Rs 50,000 to Rs 2,00,000.
In case of causing grievous hurt, the imprisonment shall be for a term of six months to seven years and with a fine of Rs 1-5 lakh.
Replying to a debate on the bill in the lower House, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said this was a 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, Mr Vardhan said.
"We have all noticed that there has been a dramatic decline in the incidents of violence against health workers all over the country," he said.
Mr Vardhan explained that the ordinance had to be brought as incidents of harassment and violence against health workers were rising amid a lack of awareness about coronavirus.
"Everyone was feeling sad and bad. That was the time the government thought of taking a proactive step. When the government reviewed, it found there were minimal laws and powers in some states. There was a need to have a central law to put in place a prohibitory mechanism to stop such activities," Mr Vardhan said.
With regard to certain objections raised by members from opposition parties regarding some legal flaws in the bill, he said the bill had been drafted after taking legal opinion.
Adhir Chowdhury of the Congress said it seemed that the government had brought the Bill in haste as certain provisions were an area of concern.
As the saying goes, "haste makes waste", he said, adding: "I would request the government to send the bill to the standing committee and a comprehensive legislation should be brought in."
Under the bill, there is a provision that says the offender would be presumed to be guilty of the offence unless proved otherwise by the accused defender, Chowdhury said, adding that this was in complete deviation from the principles of the country's criminal law.
Bhartruhari Mahtab of the BJD and Kalyan Banerjee of the TMC also raised legal lacuna in the bill and wanted the government to consider changes.
The health minister said "our government from the last 3-4 years is working on a National Public Health Act to comprehensively deal with issues related to biological emergencies".
Subhash Bhamre of the BJP said healthcare workers should be allowed to work in an environment free of abuse. He said 68,000 healthcare workers had tested positive for coronavirus so far and 500 doctors had lost their lives due to the infection.
Mr Bhamre said when doctors were working round the clock, donning PPEs, which makes it difficult to work, and without caring for their lives, the healthcare workers should get the respect they deserve.
T Sumathy Thangapandian of the DMK said the bill talked about violence against healthcare personnel during the pandemic, asking what would be the case after the pandemic ended.
Kalyan Banerjee said West Bengal already had a legislation that provides protection to healthcare workers. He said the states should be authorised to take a decision on the punishment.
K Suresh of the Congress cited various instances when healthcare workers and doctors were attacked during the pandemic.