Elucidating the Harsh Reality of Acid Attacks: The Indian Context

India today faces a realm of atrocities against women who constitute 48.5% of the population. Gender based crimes are frequent and standing tall amongst them is acid violence. It is no surprise that the number of women attacked are more than the number of men. The Law Commission of India Report submitted in July 2008 to the Supreme Court of India available at  http://lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/reports/report226.pdf states the same.

Acid attacks or acid throwing has left a number of women scarred in our country. It not only leaves them physically scarred for life but the psychological scarring is unimaginable. While researching on a paper that I was writing on the laws relating acid attacks I met a woman who had fallen prey to one such acid-throwing incident. I sat with her for a long time discussing the laws and policies relating to acid attacks when she revealed to me the shocking ground reality and the plight of acid attack survivors. Today, several years after her attack she fights for the rights of survivors just like herself, and behind the scarred face I could see a beautiful woman who stood brave and strong. Her voice shook with anger and contempt for the justice system, which has failed many like herself.

The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013, which was passed in response to the outcry, the Delhi rape case caused in our country, amongst several other provisions for the first time introduced separate provisions in the Indian Penal Code of 1860 for acid violence. Sections 326A and 326B provide for punishment for acid attack and attempt to acid attack which came as a welcome relief. After the introduction of the new penal provisions, the data recording the number of acid attacks in the country seems to be more accurate and reliable.

The punishment provided ranges from ten years to life imprisonment. In this juncture, one may question the quantum of punishment. The pertinent question is whether death penalty will have a better effect on the crime rate? The introduction of death penalty in Bangladesh for acid attacks seems to have made a difference. In 2002, the Bangladesh Government introduced two new acts – Acid Crime Control Act (ACCA) and the Acid Control Act (ACA) for increasing the quantum of punishment to death penalty and regulating the acid sale regulation. With respect to the effect of death penalty and acid sale regulation (which is was the amendment in 2002) in Bangladesh, there seems to be a steady decrease in the number of attacks. The statistical data that I’m referring to forms part of Annual Report, 2013 by the Acid Survivors Foundation at http://www.acidsurvivors.org/images/frontImages/Annual_Report-2013.pdf. This leaves us wondering if a change in the criminal Justice System would make a difference in the Indian Society.

The Supreme Court, in the case of Laxmi v. Union of India came up with a number of guidelines. Firstly, with respect to the regulation of acid sale and enactment of appropriate provision for effective regulation of sale of acid in the States/Union Territories, the Supreme Court has directed the Chief Secretaries of the concerned States/Administrators of the Union Territories to ensure the compliance of the certain directions with immediate effect.

All the States and Union Territories which had not framed rules were ordered make rules to regulate sale of acid and other corrosive substances in line with the Model Rules framed by the Central Government. The States, which had framed rules but those rules were not as stringent as the Model Rules framed by the Central Government were required to make necessary amendments in their rules to bring them in line with the Model Rules framed by the central Government. The Chief Secretaries of the respective States and the Administrators of the Union Territories are required to ensure compliance of the above expeditiously and in no case later than three months from the receipt of the draft Model Rules from the Central Government.

In the States/Union Territories, where rules to regulate the sale of acid and other corrosive substances are not operational, until such rules are framed and made operational, the Chief Secretaries of the concerned States/Administrators of the Union Territories are to ensure the compliance of the following directions with immediate effect:

  • Over the counter, sale of acid is completely prohibited unless the seller maintains a log/register recording the sale of acid which will contain the details of the person(s) to whom acid(s) is/are sold and the quantity sold. The log/register shall contain the address of the person to whom it is sold.
  • All sellers shall sell acid only after the buyer has shown a photo ID issued by the Government, which also has the address of the persons and also specifies the reason/purpose for procuring acid.
  • All stocks of acid must be declared by the seller with the concerned Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) within 15 days.
  • No acid shall be sold to any person who is below 18 years of age.
  • In case of undeclared stock of acid, it will be open to the concerned SDM to confiscate the stock and suitably impose fine on such seller up to Rs. 50,000/-
  • The concerned SDM may impose fine up to Rs. 50,000/- on any person who commits breach of any of the above directions.

The educational institutions, research laboratories, hospitals, Government Departments and the departments of Public Sector Undertakings, who are required to keep and store acid, are directed to follow the following guidelines:

  • A register of usage of acid shall be maintained and the same shall be filed with the concerned SDM.
  • A person shall be made accountable for possession and safe keeping of acid in their premises.
  • The acid shall be stored under the supervision of this person and there shall be compulsory checking of the students/ personnel leaving the laboratories/place of storage where acid is used.

The concerned SDM is vested with the responsibility of taking appropriate action for the breach/default/ violation of the directions given by the Supreme Court. Secondly, with regard to compensation, the Supreme Court has directed that the acid attack victims shall be paid compensation of at least Rs. 300,000 by the concerned State Government/Union Territory as the after care and rehabilitation cost. Of this amount, a sum of Rs. 100,000 shall be paid to such victim within 15 days of occurrence of such incident (or being brought to the notice of the State Government/Union Territory) to facilitate immediate medical attention and expenses in this regard. The balance sum of Rs. 200,000 shall be paid as expeditiously as may be possible and positively within two months thereafter. The Chief Secretaries of the States and the Administrators of the Union Territories are required to ensure compliance of the above direction. Thirdly, full   medical     assistance is to be provided to the victims of acid attack and that private hospitals should also provide free medical treatment to such victims. The concerned officers in the State Governments should take up the matter with the private hospitals if they are reluctant to provide free treatment.

The Supreme Court has made a sincere attempt to bring about guidelines to combat the crime but as I spoke to someone who had first experience in this regard it seemed that the ground reality was very different. My discussion revealed the following issues in India with respect to acid attacks and victims of these attacks:

  • Refusal by private hospitals to treat acid attack victims free of cost. Their justification is that the government has aided them in no way with respect to the land for the hospital, the building or the general running of the hospital. Hence, they owe nothing to the government and there are no proper agencies to implement the law.
  • Acid attack victims are required to receive a compensation of Rs. 300,000 of which 1 lakh has to be paid within 15 days from the date of the attack. However, the compensation provided is very little and is also delayed.
  • There is absolutely no regulation in relation to acid sales though the Supreme Court in its recent judgment has provided guidelines for the same. China Bazaars in Bangalore sell litre of acid for just Rs. 60 without requirement of any kind of identity. Once again, the lack of implementation of the Supreme Court regulations and no clarity as to the proper implementation agency or body seems to be the problem.
  • Lack of sensitivity on part of the State Governments is another issue. No implementation of guidelines of the Supreme Court, no rehabilitation of victims. NGOs aid in setting up small employment opportunities but if the Government joins in then it could be done on a larger scale considering the fact that if each State Government takes responsibility then the victims in each state is a number that the Government can handle.
  • Lack of a well-established legal aid system especially for victims from the lower strata of society.

I walked out with a heavy heart knowing that the remedy to the issue is going to be a long-term struggle. The strength in combating the crime lies not only in just creating the law but making sure that it’s complied with.

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