Combating acid attacks, step by step
Laxmi has so far garnered more than 27,000 signatures for her petition. Photo courtesy: Stop Acid Attacks Facebook page
Yesterday, the Centre announced that it would put in place a stringent mechanism to regulate the sale of acid in India. The controls on the sale of poisons, which are already in place since 1919 will now be extended to the sale of acids as well. Under this regulatory mechanism, a seller of acids will have to compulsory ask for an identity proof, residential address, telephone number and the purpose for which the acid is being procured from the buyer. More importantly, acid which is sold will be mild and not have the corrosive effect it hitherto had on human skin. This announcement comes after years of a fight by Laxmi, an acid attack victim who was attacked in April 2005 by a man whom she had rejected. In 2006, rights advocate Aparna Bhat, who was representing Laxmi, filed a public interest litigation asking for a ban on over-the-counter acid sales. The easy availability and cheap price for acid had made it a much sought after option for men seeking to harm women, and the number of acid attacks in the sub continent (not just India) has been consistently on the upswing. In fact, reports have shown a positive correlation between the easy and cheap availability of over-the-counter corrosive acids and the incidents of acid attacks in the subcontinent.
According to news reports, “solicitor general Mohan Parasaran informed a bench of justices RM Lodha and SJ Mukhopadhaya that the government would draft a new legislation based on the Poisons Act, 1919 and prepare a model law for states to curb acid violence by restricting public access to the deadly substance. He informed the court that Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka and Kerala have already formulated statutory rules to regulate the sale of acid and other corrosive substances under the Poisons Act, 1919 by classifying acids and other corrosive substances as ‘poison’. “It would be ensured that major acids — hydrochloric acid, sulphuric acid and nitric acid etc available for sale in retail are of such strength that it would not cause damage to humans,” the government said.”
In addition to this, the ministry of home affairs is said to be in consultation with the ministry of chemicals and fertilisers and the department of legislative affairs to come up with the new regulations to control the retail sale of acids. In addition, 24 states and union territories have notified the Victim Compensation Scheme under Section 357A of the Criminal Procedure Code, according to news reports.
According to statistics worldwide, an estimated 80 per cent of acid attacks are on women who are attacked by rejected suitors, ex-husbands and men who try to make sexual advances towards them and are rebuffed.
As far as tackling acid attacks go, India could take a leaf out of Bangladesh’s book. Bangladesh was the first country in the subcontinent to regulate acid sales and bring in strong sentencing for those convicted of acid attacks. They brought in the Acid Crime Prevention Act and Acid Control Act in 2002. This made it mandatory to have a license to manufacture, sell or purchase acid as well as making the maintenance of sale records mandatory – something we have only just announced yesterday. In Bangladesh, those who commit an acid attack could be sentenced to death, in addition to the sale of acids being strictly regulated. Also unlicensed production, import, transport, storage, sale, and use of acid can lead to a prison term of up to 10 years. Anyone with the chemicals and equipment to produce acids without the requisite licenses can also be sentenced to the same prison term. Between 2002 and 2009, Bangladesh saw a decline in the number of acid attacks by as much as 20 per cent per year since the Act was implemented, according to a 2011 report by the AvonGlobalCenter for Women and Justice. This, for a country which had the highest reported numbers of acid attacks globally, is a huge decline. Unfortunately conviction rates are still low at 10 per cent, given that victims often either don’t report the crime if the perpetrator is from within the family or are from less powerful backgrounds than the perpetrators.
According to an estimate by Stop Acid Attacks, India sees around three cases on an average reported across the nation every week. In fact until this year, we had no separate law that considered acid attacks as a distinct crime. In 2013, post the outrage after the December 2012 Delhi Gang Rape Case, amendments A & B were inserted in Section 326 of the Indian Penal Code to deal specifically with acid attacks. The sentences for acid attacks was set at a minimum of 10 years and a fine imposed on the perpetrators, although they are not held responsible to compensate the victims for the medical expenses the victim might incur. While some states like Karnataka have compensation schemes in place for acid attack victims, others don’t. Considering that the multiple reconstructive surgeries for acid attack victims can be terribly expensive, the compensations do seem meager in comparison. We also don’t have enough burn centers across the country, and worse, no awareness of what immediate first aid can be done to minimize the damage caused by the acid. On the positive side though, we do today have a greater awareness of the true horror of acid attacks, thanks to brave survivors who refuse to be silent, who refuse to hide themselves and who demand justice for themselves and for others survivors like them.
Many factors need to fall into place in order to tackle this hideous social scourge of acid attacks. But this is a start. Regulating the sale of acids should prove to be a deterrent at the first stage itself, with making its procurement, which was earlier as easy as going to the neighbourhood kirana store and handing over Rs 20, now a process with complete checks in place. If implemented stringently, this could be half the battle won. For the countless women out there who have had their lives completely shattered by this reckless act of violence though, this might be too little, too late.
In her fight against acid attacks, Laxmi also started a petition on change.org on 10 July 2013, right after the Supreme Court judgement, urging Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde for a policy framework that regulates and control sale of acid in retail. Her petition reached 20,000 signatures in just 2 days. A day before her judgement, along with 4 acid attack survivors, she delivered 27,000 signatures to Shinde. After her hearing on 16th July, which resulted in the Centre preparing guidelines to regulate and control acid, they also presented a draft for a rehabilitation plan of acid attack victims.
There have been several other petitions on change.org started on/for acid attack victims. For instance, Shailesh Paswan started a petition to get justice for his daughter Chanchal in Patna after she was attacked by four individuals while she was asleep on her terrace. The campaign was supported by 70,000 people and got her case in a fast track court, but she’s still waiting for her compensation. Another campaign was started by Amar Singh Rathi, Preeti Rathi’s father, after his daughter died of a brutal acid attack at Bandra Terminal in Mumbai. He has asked to get a CBI investigation into his daughter’s death which has garnered 47,000 signatures till now.