No escape from this hell

No escape from this hell

Pictures don’t capture the full horror of an acid attack. Acid flung by a jilted lover or a jealous husband at a woman eats into her flesh in seconds, scarring her for life. Activists see some hope after a recent Supreme Court ruling clamped tough restrictions on its sale

Activists have welcomed the recent directions by the Supreme Court, banning over-the-counter sale of acid and ordering other steps to tackle acid attacks. But many victims scarred before this court order are still awaiting justice – and compensation.

“The ex-gratia payment of Rs 2 lakh which we were supposed to get after our daughter became the victim of acid attack and died a painful death is still caught in red tape,” says Amar Singh Rathi, father of Delhi's Preeti Rathi.

“We had to pay Rs 60,000 to bring our daughter’s body back from Mumbai. We have not received any compensation nor was the case taken over by the CBI as promised by the government,”  he says.

Preeti died on June 4 after being attacked with acid at Mumbai’s Bandra station. She had gone to Mumbai for an interview for a nurse’s job in Indian Navy.

As per the law, government hospitals have to give free treatment to acid attack victims. However, due to the lack of burn units in most government hospitals, many families opt for treatment in private hospitals.

“In Delhi only Safdarjung hospital has a burn unit, which is always full. Many burn victims even die waiting for their turn. In such a scenario families opt for treatment at a private hospitals. Across India, there are only a handful of government hospitals with a burn unit,” says Pragya, coordinator of  the NGO Stop Acid Attacks.

She gives the example of the family of a girl recently attacked in a Bihar town.
“The government hospital asked them to go to Patna where they admitted the victim in a private hospital as time was running out and they didn't know which government hospital has a burn unit.”

In many cases, families need to spend lakhs as the initial costs. “So many families of acid attack victims are in debt. The initial cost of surgeries comes to lakhs. There are multiple surgeries which take place. Getting compensation is again a struggle.

The three lakh rupee-compensation directed by court, if at all given to the victim, will only help in covering the initial cost,” she says.

“The states need to take the rehabilitation process of victims seriously. The Centre cannot look into that matter. The victims are in dire need of starting over their life and they require government's support.

The NGOs are doing their bit, but it is the state’s responsibility as the victims not only face physical disfigurement but also psychological scars and social ostracisation,” says another activist.

Victims and activists in the past have demanded a blanket ban on sale of acid. That hasn’t happened, but the new court guidelines provide a ray of hope.

“A blanket ban is not possible,” admits Liza Varma, director of Acid Survivors Foundation, citing other uses of the chemical.

“We think that if over the counter sale of acid is controlled, it will show positive effects. Acid has very specific uses and is not used every day like plastic.The recent regulations will be like gun licence. The police cannot do much unless there is a clear directive. It will take time to control it as it is large country,” she says. 

Pragya says countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Cambodia witnessed drastic drop in acid attack cases after they imposed regulations on its sale.

“There is tons and tons of acid still in the market. How do you dispose it? It is in small shops in villages and cities. While it is still relatively easy to control its sale in metros, regulating it in villages, small towns will take time and gradually we will see a change,” she says.

Low cost and its easy availability are major reasons for its misuse. “It is an inexpensive way to take revenge,” Pragya adds.

Frame laws

On July 18, Supreme Court directed states and union territories to frame laws for regulating over-the-counter sale of acid within three months. Further, the court gave interim directions completely prohibiting its over-the-counter sale, unless the seller maintains a register recording the buyer’s address and other details.

“All dealers should sell the chemical only after the buyer shows a government-issued photo identity card and specifies the purpose of purchase. The seller should submit the details of sale to the local police within three days of the transaction; no acid should be sold to any person under 18 and all stocks must be declared with the local sub-divisional magistrate in 15 days. Undeclared stocks could be confiscated and the defaulter fined up to Rs 50,000,” said the judgment.

The court directed all states to pay acid attack victims Rs 3 lakh towards medical treatment and aftercare rehabilitation — Rs 1 lakh within 15 days of an incident and the balance within the next two months. A day earlier, the Centre submitted to the Supreme Court its own recommendations.

Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Haryana, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh had already framed rules; Meghalaya had circulated the draft rules. Tamil Nadu is coming out with the rules in two months.

The crime is still a bailable offence. In the recent SC directions, the states and the union territories have also been asked to work amending laws to make acid attacks a non-bailable offence. 

Activists say in rare cases an acid  attack convict gets life imprisonment. Otherwise, as of now, the usual sentence is between one and six years, they say.

They cite the 2003 Jharkhand case of  17-year-old Sonali Mukherjee, a security guard’s daughter. She was attacked while sleeping on the terrace by three men from her college, because she ignored their advances. Sonali was the president of the student union, a captain in the National Cadet Corps and an honours student set to pursue a PhD in Sociology. Soon after the attack, Mukherjee's grandfather died and her mother fell into depression. She lost her eyesight in the attack and had 98 per cent burns.

“She had no ears, no eyes, no eyelids, no nose, no lips, no scalp and no chest,” says Dr Sanjeev Bagai, her doctor at Delhi’s BLK Hospital.

The men who scarred her for life were freed after two years in jail.
Sonali has appealed against the trial court's decision. But years on, she is yet to get a date in court.

Landmark case

The landmark case of life imprisonment to an acid attack accused came in 2006, the sentence served  by Karnataka High Court. Accused Joseph Rodrigues was convicted for attacking Haseena Husain on April 20, 1999, when she spurned his overtures. She lost both her eyes and went through scores of surgeries. Rodrigues was Husain’s boss.

On My 4, 2013, in a case relating to acid attack on a minor girl, who died, a district court in Sonipat sentenced the primary accused to life imprisonment and imposed a fine of Rs 11,000 on him.

So far this year, 60-65 acid attacks cases have been registered  across the country – some 32 of them in Delhi. Activists say many cases go unreported. Pragya gives the example of a family in Lakhimpur, Uttar Pradesh, attacked by acid while they  slept on their terrace.

“The mother died, three children survived. They are trying to get medical help and not bothered about filing a report. People really give up when they are so tied up with the treatment,” says Pragya.

Apart from Delhi-National Capital Region, UP and Bihar see the largest number of acid attacks. Earlier this year, criminal law on acid attacks too was amended, following a petition filed in court by a victim Laxmi in 2006. Her PIL had sought framing of a new law, or amendment to the existing laws like Indian Penal Code (IPC), Indian Evidence Act and Criminal Procedure Code  (CrPC). She had also pleaded for a total ban on sale of acid.

Laxmi was subjected to an acid attack following her refusal to marry the accused.
The Law Commission of India too had proposed terming acid attacks as a specific offence in the Indian Penal Code, saying laws relating to grievous hurt in sections 320, 322, 325 and 326 of the IPC were insufficient.

“This definition of grievous hurt has been criticised as the definition does not take within its purview the various kinds of deliberate hurt that is inflicted on important parts of a female’s body nor does this definition apply to offences like acid attack in which multiple types of grievous hurts occur,” it said.

‘Men face acid attacks too over enmity’

Most acid attacks are against women. But men too face the horror.
Liza Varma, director of Acid Survivors Foundation, speaks of a case where a man couldn’t pay back the money he had borrowed. He threw acid on the lender so that he wouldn't be able to tell anyone about the loan.

In another case, a girl’s family threw battery acid on a man after he refused
marriage.

But, more often, women are attacked with acid when they spurn a lover.
Dr P S Bhandari, consultant plastic surgeon at Lok Nayak Hospital, estimates one in every four acid attack victim he has treated is a male.

“The difference we have observed is that male victims were generally involved in an enmity or a dispute. But female victims were either innocent girls who had just dared to refuse a proposal or were attacked by their husbands due to suspicion of infidelity,” he says.

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