As is often the case with crimes against women, acid attacks are treated with official apathy and societal indifference.
The rising number of acid attack cases, from 83 in 2011 to 349 in 2015, shows India’s inability to grapple with this heinous crime. Cases continue unabated in various parts of the country, showing the pan-Indian character of this form of assault. Over the last few months, cases of acid violence have been reported from Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bihar, Assam and Delhi, underlining the fact that little has been done to regulate the availability of acid, despite the Supreme Court directive three years ago.
India has the highest number of acid attacks in the world, but the worst conviction rates. As is often the case with other crimes against women, acid attacks are treated with official apathy and societal indifference. The victims are usually women between the ages of 14 and 35 years, and the attack often occurs as revenge for rejecting a marriage proposal or sexual advances, showing the peculiar mindset of male entitlement and power, and no right for a woman to refuse. Women have had acid thrown at them for not bringing enough dowry, for bearing a female child and for not cooking a good enough meal.
Acid attack survivors undergo immense daily trauma – they are blinded, scarred beyond recognition, robbed of their identity, often unable to step out of the house, seek employment or lead a normal life ever again. But, it was only in 2013, after the Jyoti Singh gangrape and murder case, that India officially acknowledged its seriousness by introducing separate sections in the India Penal Code – 326A and 326B – to deal with acid attackers, making the offence non bailable and specifying a minimum of ten years to life imprisonment.
Shockingly, many cases go unreported, especially if a family member is the attacker. Megha Mishra, manager of the North India of the Acid Survivors Foundation India, has seen cases where survivors continue to stay with the attacker, if a family member, for they have nowhere else to go. Maimed and blinded, the women find it difficult to get jobs and are unable to support themselves. These cases reflect the utter callousness of the systems of governance and justice, and reflect very poorly on us as a society.
By law, acid in India now can only be sold by licensed shops. The shopkeeper is required to maintain a record of the quantity sold and to whom. These details have to be then submitted to the local police within three days of the transaction. All stocks have to be declared with the sub-divisional magistrate. Undeclared stocks can be confiscated and a maximum of Rs 50,000 levied as fine. This, of course, is rarely done. Most of the establishments that use acid are in the unorganised sector. As acid is used right from toilet cleaning, to jewellery making and in battery shops, car and auto service garages, it continues to be easily available. Only a cup of acid is sufficient to disfigure a person and put her through unimaginable misery.
So how can we fight this crime? We can learn from Bangladesh, which had an extremely high number of cases and has been able to combat the problem to a great extent. First, an acid attack case in the country has to be tried speedily. Investigations must be completed within 30 days. If the investigating officer needs more time, she or he has to inform the court and only two extensions of 15 days are given. If the officer fails to complete the investigations, or is found to be corrupt, she or he is liable for punishment. The case has to be decided within 90 days. Second, Bangladesh has severe punishments for the crime – upto capital punishment. Third, unlicensed production, import, transportation, storage, sale and use of acid can attract a jail term from three to ten years. The stringent laws and their implementation have seen the number of attacks fall from 500 during 2002 to 71 in 2012.
The good news is that of late, courts in India have started to give enhanced punishments in older cases where judgments were pending. The Nalanda district court, the Chengalpattu district and sessions court, the Bombay high court and the Delhi high court recently increased the punishment to ten years or life where the survivor had been blinded or had died. The cases are over ten years old, the Nalanda case was over 27 years old and the judgements are being pronounced now!
The Supreme Court has directed all public and private hospitals to provide first aid treatment free of cost to the survivor. As Alok Dixit of the Stop Acid Attacks campaign pointed out, it is difficult for a person in a village or a town to access a hospital with a burns ward. Such hospitals are only in big cities. The survivor, therefore, rarely gets immediate medical attention which can reduce disfigurement, pain and suffering greatly. While some hospitals are providing the initial treatment free, the woman may need to stay on for weeks or months, and hospitals are reluctant to keep her that long. Survivors are supposed to get about Rs 3 lakh as compensation from the state. But this amount is not enough as the cost of reconstructive surgeries often runs over Rs 30 lakh. A woman who has had acid thrown on her face may need 40 to 50 reconstructive surgeries if not more. States need to set up mechanisms and funds to provide for these surgeries as well as cover the victim’s travel costs to hospitals that provide them.
Then there is the issue of education and employment. Girls are forced to drop out of school and women are unable to carry on with their jobs because of disfigurement and loss of sight. They need to be trained for suitable jobs through which they can support themselves. No importance has been given to this and the victim is left to fend for herself.
India has acknowledged the cancer of acid attacks by framing suitable laws. But clearly these laws need better implementation, as do efforts to put survivors on the road to rehabilitation.