Demonetisation and the Plague: What Modi Can Learn from the Epidemic Diseases Act

With the plague as well as with demonetisation, India's leaders have moved to stop the spread of an illness but not its incidence itself.

A map of India from 1909. A plague followed a famine in 1896 that had been particularly severe on the Central Provinces. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A map of India from 1909. A plague followed a famine in 1896 that had been particularly severe on the Central Provinces. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In February 1897, the colonial government in India passed the Epidemic Diseases Act with the aim of ‘preventing the spread of dangerous epidemic diseases’. There are some interesting policymaking parallels of this Act with the recent demonetisation decision. Just as the NDA government had of late been facing criticism for not doing enough to tackle corruption and black money, the late 1890s’ colonial government was considered ineffective in controlling the plague epidemic that had begun in Bombay in August 1896. For example, in December 1896, Bal Gangadhar Tilak criticised the ‘criminal indifference’ of the government in approaching plague control.

The plague was a problem for Britain internationally, too, as many European powers had threatened embargoes on ‘plague-infested’ British trade vessels coming from India. Amidst such increasing pressure to do something, a Bill was abruptly introduced in the Imperial Legislative Council in Calcutta on January 28, 1897. John Woodburn, a prominent member of the council, asked for “Your Excellency’s [Lord Elgin, Viceroy of India] permission to suspend the Rules of Business in order to enable me to… introduce a Bill to meet the spread of dangerous epidemic diseases”.

It was a hastily drafted Bill, barely a page long, but ‘extending to the whole of British India’ and coming into force immediately. It was referred to a Select Committee (of four British and two Indian members) and was brought up for discussion in the next session on February 4. Surprisingly, it was passed as an Act the very same day. And though the Indian members of the council noted that it was loaded with vague terminology and potential for abuse of power, the council passed it almost unaltered.

Woodburn made an effort to subject his Bill to debate simply because procedure mandated it; he perhaps actually had no intentions of altering it. With respect to demonetisation, a similar attitude was shown by the central government on November 8 when, to quote an unnamed senior bureaucrat from a Business Standard report, “the plan was already in place; we were called [simply] to be apprised about it.” The opinions of skeptical bureaucrats, like of the Indian members of the 1897 Legislative Council, were brushed aside. To quote the article again: “Some bureaucrats had raised concerns about the multiple cascading effects of the move. ‘But the support from most other senior bureaucrats, as well as among the ministers, drowned these voices,’ a source said.”

Meanwhile, in February 1897, the local Indian press welcomed the passage of the Epidemic Diseases Act. Tilak was happy that his “pleadings had not gone waste” while Calcutta’s Amrita Bazaar Patrika welcomed it as a “delayed boon” (February 18, 1897). Even the demonetisation policy, when announced, was warmly welcomed by India’s political class and media. It can be argued that in both cases the warm reception was more to the fact that ‘there finally is a policy’ than to the policy itself, as in both cases the warmth was soon replaced by fury.

Since several crucial details were either ignored or not thought through while framing the Epidemic Diseases Act, adverse effects were inevitable. The Act empowered local authorities to inspect any person or any dwelling that they felt harboured plague, and to isolate patients from their families into government hospitals. Abuse of power was widely reported. Random and disrespectful inspections, with destruction of property in the name of cleaning operations, became common. People started distrusting the authorities and hiding plague patients and corpses, which unfortunately worsened the plague prevalence. In June 1897, Tilak thundered that no measure previously undertaken by the British had “interfered so largely and in such a systematic way with the lives of the people”.

People also strongly opposed the subjection of women to medical examinations on railway stations and their forcible isolation to hospitals away from their families. The Chapekar Brothers of Poona (now Pune) were so enraged at these “insults of our women and religion” that they assassinated Walter Rand, the city’s plague commissioner, in June 1897. The murder rattled the British government. Clearly, the Calcutta Council members who drafted the Act had either failed to anticipate the severity of such adverse consequences or chosen to believe that the benefits outweighed the potential problems.

Coming back to the present, both the nation and the government have been rattled by the repercussions of the demonetisation policy, including deaths of senior citizens and children; and a similar argument could be made about the thoughts put in while making this decision. Common sense mandates extensive planning and multifaceted discussions before making a policy that potentially affects a large number of people. In this respect, both the Epidemic Diseases Act and demonetisation are examples of policy-making gone awfully awry.

Last: the celebrated Act failed to control plague. It continued killing Indians and more viciously, in fact: in 1905 alone, more than a million Indians had died of it. This was unsurprising because the government, through an ineffective and hasty policy, focused disproportionately more on preventing the spread of plague than on decreasing the incidence of plague (investing in sanitary measures, for example). For curbing corruption too, as pointed out by Suyash Rai of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, getting basics right  – such as enhancing administrative and regulatory capacity, and reforms in tax administration – would “serve us better than a large scale disruption that comes at a potentially big economic cost”.

Kiran Kumbhar is a physician and health policy graduate engaged in public health awareness through writing.