Acid attacks, which involve a deliberate act of throwing a toxic substance on the body of a person, are becoming more and more frequent in India. These attacks that are mostly targeted at women, are an attempt to exert control over a woman’s body in a largely patriarchal society. According to a research by the Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI), there were 349 documented cases in 2014 alone, a figure three times higher than that of 2013 and nearly four times that of 2010.
The Courts have passed various judgments to put an end to this ghastly, gender specific crime- issuing directions to the government to prohibit over- the- counter sale of acids by sellers without licenses and also made a proof of identification of the buyer along with his details to be recorded, mandatory. The Criminal Amendment, 2013 has made acid attacks a specific offense with a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
In situations where an acid attack does take place, the Supreme Court has instructed the government to ensure that victims are given immediate, free treatment by all hospitals- whether government or private. It has also mandated a compensation of atleast three lakhs to be paid to each victim.
The road, however, is still far from rosy for acid attack victims, who have to battle not just physical and psychological wounds, but also an utter state of apathy by way of an insensitive police force, an overburdened judiciary and medical professionals ill equipped to handle such cases. The primary concerns that I want to highlight through this blog post, are as under:
- The continued sale of acid in the open market
India does not have any law to regulate acid sales till date, barring the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989, that applies largely to industries. Even the instructions issued by the Supreme Court to the state governments regarding the sale of acids, have largely been ignored by the majority of the states. The result is that acid continues to be sold over the counter, at dirt- cheap prices, without any requirements of license or identity proof.
- Inadequacy of the law and its enforcement
There is a major dearth of a strong law acting as a deterrent against acid attacks. Though Sections 326A and 326B, which make acid attack a specific offense with a maximum punishment of life imprisonment have been included in the Indian Penal Code, the offenders often escape punishment because of the extreme focus of the judiciary on minor contradictions and lapses in the prosecution’s statements and also the difficulty of proving mens rea of the accused. Life imprisonment has been prescribed as a maximum sentence, only to be applied in exceptional circumstances at the discretion of the judge. It has been noticed in most cases, however, that smaller sentences with bails regularly given are the norm, with life imprisonment not imposed even on the death of the victim.
- Insensitivity of the police and delays in the justice process
Police officers view victims with a suspicious lens, focusing more on their actions prior to the attack, making them feel as though the offense happened through some fault of theirs, rather than on the acts of the offender.
The judiciary also does not fare well on this count, with cases filed by victims taking years, a function of the Courts having a huge backlog of cases and the prosecutors too burdened to dedicate time and energy to the case. Till this time, the victims are expected to fend for themselves financially, a task which becomes impossible when the victim comes from a poor background.
- Inadequate Compensation
An acid attack entails not just the immediate attempt to save the victim’s life, but a lifetime of surgeries- skin grafts, debridements and z-plasties, to restore the victims to even a shadow of their previous selves. Add to this the physiotherapy that is needed to ensure flexibility of the scarred areas and medication such as gel sheets, anti- scar ointments and pressure garments and the total cost that a victim has to bear runs into tens of lakhs. In such a scenario, three lakhs is a very inadequate amount, insufficient to cover the cost for even the most basic of surgeries.
- Psychological and Financial help
Acid attacks usually target the face, the most visible part of the body and the one most commonly used for social interaction and communication. Most attacks also leave the victims blind, deaf, unable to walk or perform other basic functions. As a result, acid attack victims find it very hard to interact with not just strangers, but also family and friends. They also find it difficult to find jobs or complete their education. They then become largely dependent on their family to provide for their basic needs. Some also go into depression, contemplating suicide as a way to end their suffering. Psychological and financial help becomes very important in such a case, a factor that is rarely taken into account.
- Inexperienced doctors
The Acid Survivors Trust International mandates a specific procedure to be followed immediately after an acid attack, the first of which is washing the burned area thoroughly with water to minimize scarring and save the victim from an imminent death. However, it has been observed in many cases that doctors in India have no idea how to proceed in case of an acid attack, in many instances rendering the wrong treatment, such as wrapping up in blankets or applying coconut oil instead of washing, leading to the acid spreading to the other parts of the body and either leading to more complications or death. A case in point is that of Haseena Hussain, who after an acid attack was forced to lie in bed for three days without receiving any medical attention, thereby damaging her ear and also causing her to lose her vision completely.
In light of the above issues, the following proposals have generally been suggested to reduce the incidence of this ghastly crime:
- Making acid a banned chemical
India needs to take cue from Bangladesh which has a law prohibiting the production, import, transfer, storage, sale and use of acid, with violators being punished with a jail sentence for as long as ten years, and prohibit over the counter sale of acids, except for scientific and commercial purposes. This model has been largely successful in Bangladesh, which has seen nearly a 75% reduction in the number of acid attacks since the law came into force.
- Stricter laws with better enforcement
In the case of framing laws to deter acid attacks also, India can look to Bangladesh as an example, which has a law punishing offenders, maiming or killing with acid, with either capital punishment or rigorous life imprisonment and a fine of ten takas. Acid attack is a serious offence, condemning the victim to a painful life, and it warrants nothing less than a sentence of life imprisonment or death penalty; anything less will be a serious miscarriage of justice.
- Presumption of Intention
As the Law Commission suggested in its 226th Report, a new section- Section 114B needs to be added to the Indian Evidence Act, which would presume an intention on part of the offender in the case of an acid attack, since offenders escape punishment in acid attack cases mostly on the ground that mens rea becomes very difficult to prove.
- Setting up of fast track courts
Special fast track courts need to be set up to expedite the judicial process for the acid attack victims, with time limits being imposed for the disposal of the cases. Here again, Bangladesh can be looked at for inspiration, where Acid- Offences Prevention Tribunals have been set up, with an obligation to complete the investigation within 30 days and dispose of the case within 90.
- Setting up of a central body to deal with the issue of compensation
A Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, as suggested by the 226th Law Commission in its report, needs to be set up to deal with the issue of compensation at the central level. This board would have the responsibility of helping acid attack victims financially, irrespective or whether or not a conviction for the accused is secured.
- Setting up of a Victim Assistance Board
The idea of setting up a National Acid Attack Victim’s Assistance Board is also something that can be explored. It would be responsible for helping out victims with their immediate financial needs, getting them the psychological help that they require and could also aid them in their interactions with the police.
- Solving the livelihood problem
The government needs to explore the option of providing government jobs to acid attack victims to help them become self sufficient and independent.
- Increasing awareness among doctors
The government should set up training camps to educate doctors on how to treat an acid attack victim. It should also make it mandatory for hospitals to have a special ward for acid attack victims, with doctors specializing in this field, so as to ensure the proper treatment of acid attack victims.
In this blog post, I have mainly highlighted the short- term solutions to tackle the problem of acid attacks. However, I recognize that what is needed is a change in the mindsets of the society towards women and their recognition on par with men. This is a change that can only be brought about over a period of time with the concerted efforts of the government and the society.
By: Shubhi Goyal, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad