One strong spurt of hot liquid on her face from a steel mug and a terrible burning sensation — that is all Nirupama remembers from an otherwise regular day in 2013. The acid attack melted her left ear and disfigured her face permanently, causing both physical and psychological scarring. What followed were 10 surgeries with more to come, innumerable hospital visits, and many rounds of the courts, which continue to this day.
But the perpetrator, the stalker whom she identified as her former teacher, was released after a short three-month stint in jail. The acid that scarred her for life can still be freely and cheaply bought from the shelves of neighbourhood shops in her village of Kamargaon in Assam’s Darrang district.
This is the story of most acid attack victims in India since the first recorded incident came to light in 1982.
Crime, no punishment
The National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) data reveals that there has been no let up in the number of this gender-based crime — in 2011, there were 83 acid attacks; in 2021, it grew to 176 (albeit down from 249 in 2019).
West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh consistently record the highest numbers of acid attacks, generally accounting for nearly 50% of all cases in the country year on year. In 2021, 153 men were charge-sheeted. Merely seven have been convicted.
Many activists say the lack of cohesive legislation in regulating the sale of acids, and in ensuring punishment for perpetrators, is probably the chief reason for their misuse.
They give the example of Bangladesh, where acid attacks came down drastically after the government brought in two laws dedicated to the control and prevention of this crime. The Bangladesh Acid Control Act, 2002 and the first and second Acid Crime Prevention Acts, 2002 restrict the import and sale of acid in open markets. Once known as a country with the highest number of recorded acid attacks (496 in 2002), the number dropped to 70 in 10 years after the laws came into being, according to the non-profit Acid Survivors Trust International.
Laws of reflection
In India, the National Commission for Women floated a draft ‘Prevention of Offences (by Acid)’ Bill in 2008, but it failed to see the light of the day.
However, following the ‘Nirbhaya’ gang-rape case and the Justice Verma Commission report in 2013, the Union government amended the Indian Penal Code, recognising acid attacks as a separate offence with a minimum punishment of 10 years and a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
In the same year, following directives from the Supreme Court, the sale and procurement of acid in India was also sought to be regulated under the Poison Act, 1919. Additionally, the apex court also instructed governments to issue acid sale licenses to select retailers. These authorised outlets were to ask for address and photo identity proof from the buyer. However, across the country and especially in rural India, there is little awareness of the laws and guidelines that regulate the sale and procurement of acid.
Alok Dixit, founder of Sheroes Hangout, an organisation working with acid attack survivors, says most attacks happen in rural or semi-rural areas, though the ones that get highlighted in the media are almost always from the cities. Scores of such incidents from rural India also go unreported and are not accounted for in national statistics, he said.
According to information shared by the NGO Chhanv Foundation, of which Mr. Dixit is the founder-director, of the 130 cases they were working on, 100 were from rural areas.
A study by the Nalanda University in 2019 showed that in the majority of cases, acid attack victims are women who have desisted persistent declarations of “love” or proposals of marriage.
“In our experience, in rural and semi-urban areas, acids are used to clean toilets and drains. Here, people find toilet cleaners expensive,” Mr. Dixit said.
There is a need for a blanket ban on the use of acids except for industrial use, says senior Supreme Court advocate Colin Gonsalves, adding, “For this, we need a separate law which can just prohibit the sale of acid.”
However, Mr. Gonsalves cautions against any new law that can reduce either the punishment to the perpetrator or the compensation to the victim. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly awarded high compensations to acid attack victims, sometimes in the range of ₹30-40 lakh, for their medical needs and rehabilitation. No new law should bring this down,” he said.
Over the years, there have been many Private Members’ Bills introduced by Members of Parliament whenever an attack has triggered rage in society. The most recent among them were by Trinamool Congress MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar in the Lok Sabha in 2018, and another by BJP MP Narayan Lal Panchariya in the Rajya Sabha. However, the government has made no effort to adopt them.
Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover, who has been actively associated with many acid attack cases, says it’s simplistic to say that a standalone legislation can help acid attack victims secure justice and stop the easy availability of the chemicals.
“Post-Nirbhaya, we have recognised acid attacks as a crime and have Supreme Court mandated guidelines for the sale and procurement of acids. However, the question here is to see how many State governments have actually formulated the rules for the same,” Ms. Grover said.
A law needs a budget for its implementation — for infrastructure, personnel, and amplification. Governments both at the Centre and in the States must delve into this.