How the Coronavirus Lockdown Was Imposed & Why This is Important
With coronavirus cases in India steadily increasing on a daily basis, the whole country is under a 21-day nationwide lockdown till the end of 14 April.
Despite the release of guidelines by the Centre about the lockdown, a lot of things aren’t entirely clear. The Quint will be trying to help you with the answers to your questions about the lockdown, from what you can or can’t do, to what you can do if the police are being overzealous.
In this set of FAQs, we explain how the lockdown has been imposed – whether it’s by the Centre or the state governments, and what you need to watch out for as a result.
NOTE: In addition to these FAQs, you can find our summaries and the full text of the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Guidelines, including what shops will be open and what essential services will continue to function, here.
How the Lockdown Works
What power has been used by the government to impose a lockdown for 21 days?
The directions for the lockdown have been issued under the Disaster Management Act 2005. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has the power to issue guidelines and directions to the Central/State/Union Territory governments on how to deal with a ‘disaster’ under Section 10(2)(l) of this Act.
The NDMA issued a set of directions and guidelines on 24 March on social distancing, which was identified as the only way to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Following this, the Centre’s Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order to all government departments and all States/UTs to take “effective measures” , and issued guidelines on which essential services would continue to function, what shops and industries would remain open, and what gatherings would be off-limits.
Wasn’t there some other Epidemic Diseases Act that was in the news recently?
The Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 was in the news because several state governments invoked it to put restrictions in place to deal with the coronavirus crisis. For instance, Maharashtra imposed a state-wide curfew using the powers under that law.
However, the Epidemic Diseases Act grants only very limited powers to the Centre, and so that could not be the basis for a nationwide lockdown.
So the Centre itself hasn’t imposed the lockdown?
There are some who argue that this is effectively a lockdown announced by the Centre.
However, if we look at the text of the MHA order, it does not actually say the country has to go into lockdown, but instead directs its Ministries and the state governments to implement what the NDMA has said. Its guidelines give the responsibility to figure out the details on the ground to District Magistrates and executive magistrates appointed by them.
The fact is, the Centre cannot instruct the states to impose lockdowns and tell its DMs to act in a particular way – law and order is a state subject under the Constitution. The only way the Centre could have passed such an order was if they had imposed an Emergency, which they have NOT done.
But does that mean the lockdown is not binding then? That the PM was just advising us to stay in our homes?
The lockdown IS binding, but what you have to keep in mind is that this comes from your respective state government’s orders on it, not the Centre’s – and in particular, you need to see what your DM and local administration are saying about it.
If you live in a Union Territory, the orders will come from the Centre, but again, watch out for what your local authorities say about how exactly they are going to be implemented.
Why You Need to Find Out What Local Authorities Are Saying
Why is it important to see what my local authorities are saying about the lockdown?
This is an important distinction to note because it is your regional government and local administration that will decide exactly how the lockdown will work in your area: whether there will be a curfew or not, how long shops will remain open, etc.
Most states had already issued orders about this, for instance, a curfew had been imposed in Delhi till 31 March. Following PM Modi’s announcement, this will now be extended till 14 April, but apart from the extended timeframe, the curfew will work as it did before.
On the other hand, take Uttar Pradesh. UP CM Yogi Adityanath has urged residents to not leave their homes, and assured them essential goods will be delivered to them. However, he has not issued any specific orders to this effect.
As a result, District Magistrates in UP are free to take measures appropriate for their respective areas. In Gautam Buddh Nagar, for instance (within which Noida falls), the DM has said shops selling essential items like food, milk and medicines can remain open from 6 am to 11 pm without any restrictions, and people are free to visit them.
Can the police throw me in jail if they claim I am violating the lockdown?
No. While there are penalties under the Disaster Management Act for violations of any orders passed by the relevant authorities – which include up to two years of jail time – these punishments can only be imposed after conviction by a court.
The police can detain someone they thought was violating a specific order relating to the lockdown, like a curfew order, depending on what that order says (which is again why you need to keep track of your state government and local administration’s orders).
But they wouldn’t have the right to arrest you and keep you in jail for that, as all these offences are bailable – unless of course you refuse to comply with their directions and pose a threat to public order, like the godwoman in UP on the first day of the lockdown who threatened police with a sword.
Also note that the police would also not be able to file an FIR against you on the spot for an offence under the Disaster Management Act, as this requires a formal complaint made through the NDMA.
You can read about the potential penalties that you could face for violation of the lockdown here.
Can my government issue shoot on sight orders to make people stay at home, as Andhra Chief Minister KCR has threatened?
This would be absolutely illegal. A shoot on sight order would not allow the police to ascertain whether someone was out to buy essential goods or provide an essential service – both of which are allowed regardless of where you live.
No such draconian measures can be resorted to by your government or local administration, and if they are, you can approach the courts to contest them.
Many courts are physically shut at this time, but measures are being put in place for e-filings and conducting hearings through video conferencing, so you should still contact a lawyer for help.