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Stage set for public health law, NITI sends draft to ministry

Stage has been set for the enactment of a central law to enable the country to respond effectively to public health emergencies and create a special public health cadre to respond to future challenges.

The NITI Aayog has shared a draft of the National Public Health Act with the Ministry of Health for further deliberation. The draft law proposes to repeal the 125-year-old Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, which was woefully inadequate in dealing with Covid, causing the government to invoke the National Disaster Management Act to enforce measures like lockdowns.

“In light of the evolving canvas of public health globally and domestically, the need to strengthen public health governance, and implement India’s commitment under various international instruments, it is proposed to enact a central law on public health under Entries 13 and 14 of List of Schedule VII and Article 253 of the Constitution of India,” the NITI draft says.

The law, in a first, defines several unclear terms, including bioterrorism, deratting, decontamination, disaster, public health emergency and others and proposes a national public health authority to guide national response in emergencies.

The authority will in six months formulate a comprehensive written plan for the prevention, tracking, mitigation and control of a “public health emergency” and situations of “outbreak” or “potential outbreak”.

The government, both central and state, will declare a state of public health emergency, a disease or causative agent as notifiable on the authority’s recommendations. Importantly, the draft law envisages wide ranging powers for the national authority, which will have parallel structures at state, district and block levels.

Under the head “Powers of the National and State Public Health Authority”, the draft says, “For the purpose of carrying out inquiry, the authority shall have all powers of a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, in respect of summoning witnesses, production of documents and receiving evidence on affidavit”.

Under the proposed law, declaration of public health emergency will also be tantamount to a ‘disaster’ under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

Comprehensive plan in 6 months

  • The authority will in six months formulate a comprehensive written plan for the prevention, tracking, mitigation and control of “public health emergency” and situations of “outbreak” or “potential outbreak”
  • The draft law says the central government may fix taxation on activities or products that adversely affect human health or the environment and spend proceeds on public health or sanitation, subject to the advice of the national authority
  • It mandates “duty to report”, under which pharmacists will need to report any unusual prescription rates

Tribune India

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