Section 144: A Need of the Hour amid COVID-19 Crisis

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared the novel corona virus (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, United States are preparing to the greatest extent possible. While they may not resort to building 10 new hospitals in 2 weeks like China, but 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, Dy. 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 person 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 Corona Virus 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 of domestic or foreign nationals in the area may be curtailed. The question that now lingers around is whether imposition of Section 144 the need of the hour amid this crisis?

We must know that Section 144 is there to dispose urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger by a competent magistrate so empowered to take such action. Although in India the cases of reported cases is still very low as compared to other nations across the globe. This is not to forget the harm already caused by the virus 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 restriction on public gathering 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 restriction on the Magistrate exercising these power as he have 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 2 months but there is a proviso in the same clause granting the power with State Government to exceed such time period to 6 months on satisfying itself for the need of such act. Given the situation of present case where no cure has been found these sections would need to be interpreted leniently it being a procedural law.

However, the role of CrPC would be much less when it comes to a situation which we are foreseeing as spread of COVID-19 to such a large extent. In India, we have 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 Epidemic Act and even Visas are being called cancelled 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 CrPC seems adequate to control the specific movement of targeted groups which are either more prone to the outbreak or are major threat for spreading the virus. This Section can also be invoked to prevent any situation of panic among the general public when it comes to shopping of 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 magic COVID-19 vaccine.

Sonam Chandwani is the Managing Partner at KS Legal & associates and heads the firm’s Corporate Litigation Practice.