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COVID-19 AND THE NATIONAL DISASTER MANAGEMENT ACT (NDMA)

The National Disaster Management Act (NDMA) originally came into force on 23rd December 2005 and was named as National Disaster Management Act 2005. The NDMA gives wide powers to the Government of India to draw up a plan for disaster management for the whole of the country to be called a National Plan. The National Plan is made to take measures for prevention of disaster and mitigating its effect as well as preparedness and capacity building for effective response to any threatening disaster situation.

Though pandemics such as COVID-19 are not defined under the Act, but the other definitions of disaster under the Act are wide enough to cover the ongoing pandemic sweeping across the country. We have seen a sleuth of measures adopted by the Central as well as State Governments to deal with the crisis by providing various relief measures for the citizens.

It is NDMA which lays down guidelines for minimum standards of relief such as shelter, food, drinking water, medical cover and sanitation, special provision for widows and orphans, ex-gratia assistance on account of loss of life and other measures for restoration of means of livelihood. Loan repayment deferment, as provided by RBI in the form of moratorium, is one such relief as laid down under the Act.

The Act also lays down the provision for prohibition against discrimination on the ground of sex, caste, community, descent or religion while providing compensation and relief to the victims of disaster.

The role of the media in times of such disasters is very crucial. The Act lays down clear direction to the media for communication of warning, etc.

In recent times, we have seen various incidents of obstruction and attacks on doctors, police and various other authorities working round the clock in the wake of this pandemic. The Act provides for punishment for obstruction of duties of any officer, employees of the Central or the State Government or any person authorized by the National or State Authority under the Act. The punishment is a one-year jail term or fine or both.

Then there are other penal provisions for false claim, false warning, misappropriation of money or materials. The NDMA has an overriding effect on all other laws which are inconsistent with it in times of any such disaster as notified under the Act.

There has been much debate on the proper implementation of the Act. Several PIL’s were filed before different Constitutional Courts. The Supreme Court has, time and again, intervened and issued directions for implementation of the Act in letter and spirit. In a recent judgment namely “Hanuman Laxman Aroskar v. Union of India”, Hon’ble Supreme Court held that “Adequate drills with respect to implementation of disaster management plan needs to be carried out at regular intervals so as to ensure preparedness and rapid response to any disaster both man-made and natural.”

Though much more has to be done on the implementation front as of now, it is incumbent on the Government as well as citizens to abide by the rules and regulations laid down under the Act as this may be the only way forward for a better and effective response to the ongoing crisis or any such crisis which the country may face in future.

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