Indian authorities registered 23,094 first information reports (FIRs) from March 2020 to March 2022 for violations of COVID-19 policies, according to a report released Sunday by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Fines were intended to be the primary form of punishment for COVID policy violations with FIRs to follow only on non-payment of such fine. However, 54,919 individuals were arrested under section 188 of the Indian Penal Code alone.The Vidhi Centre aimed to ascertain the extent to which Indian criminal law provisions were effective in checking public behaviour in accordance with COVID-19 restricting measures in Delhi. According to the report, police often found that violators preferred an FIR to an exorbitant fine. The study seems to suggest that, given the dearth of material evidence regarding deterrent effect of penalisation coupled with centrality of fear in the pertinent manner of administration, criminalization of the marginalized is the most concrete result.As for adjudication and sentencing, the courts prescribed a plethora of variegated punishments for similar violations. For the court orders studied, fines ranged from ₹50 to ₹4,400, but the judgments do not clarify the reasoning applied for arriving at these numbers. Furthermore, the study analysed public perception with respect to handling of pandemic-induced exigencies by government and found a lack of coordinated response from various concerned departments.The Centre suggests that incentivization of voluntary compliance through organized dissemination of vital information and essential resources as better alternative. Thus, it concludes: “Instead of using criminal law to force people into compliance, the government could have encouraged voluntary compliance by providing people with vital information about the virus, essential resources and support.”The study is part of the Lest We Forget series by the Centre.

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