Acid attack, especially on women, have seen an alarming growth in India over the last decade. Acid attacks are a form of violence against women, where the perpetrator splashes a person or object with acid in order to deface or kill them. Although acid throwing, also known as vitriol age, has been a form of violence known to be committed throughout history, there has been a steep rise in the cases documented in recent years, particularly in certain South Asian countries. Some of this increase has been attributed to better documentation of cases and also to the fact that victims of attacks have begun to report an attack more often. However, there appears to be a substantive increase in the number of acid attacks that are being committed in recent times due to various factors. Acid attacks are seen as one of the most vicious crimes as it causes perpetual suffering to the victim. As acid melts flesh and even the bones of a person, it causes an unparalleled degree of pain to the victim and leaves her mutilated an d scarred as well as gives permanent disabilities at times such as blindness.
Instances of acid attacks are no longer a rarity in India. Despite this, there are no specific laws that deal with this heinous crime. While these attacks can be attributed to various factors such as the social weakness of women in a male-dominated society, the situation is exacerbated by the general neglect of the lawmakers. As acid is inexpensive and easily available, it serves as an ideal weapon for the perpetrators. So far, there is no separate law to deal with acid attacks. Cases are registered under sections 320 (causing emasculation and disfigurement), 322 and 325 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt) and 326 (causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means). Under these sections, the accused could be sent to jail for a period of one year to 10 years. Further, as this offence is bailable in certain situations, the punishment does not act as a sufficient deterrent in most cases.The crime of acid attack has a gender dimension in India, with majority of the victims being women. Men who commit these crimes are usually spurned suitors who want to avenge their rejection. Other cases involve denial of dowry by women, robbery and land disputes.
The violent crime of acid throwing not only inflicts horrendous physical effects, but also mental injuries on the victim just like burning in hell for penance of sins. Almost all the victims plea for their right to die: this crime has given rise to a number of plea for euthanasia cases too. Sonali Mukherjee, a victim of acid attack nine years ago, has appealed to the Indian Government for medical support for skin reconstructive surgery as well as tougher penalties on her three assailants, who were released on bail after only three years in prison. Either that, she says, or authorities should give her the right to kill herself.
Our legal and medical systems have also proved very weak while dealing with such cases; there is no proper legislation and the medical facilities provided are also not proper. One of the major problems with this type of crime, just like several other crimes against women, is that the police does not take strong enough action when complaints are registered. Globally 1500 such cases have been reported which has now led the governments of South Asian countries, to take a proactive approach to the crime. In 2002, Bangladesh introduced death penalty for throwing acid and implemented laws strictly controlling the sale of acids. In 2011, Pakistan passed a law in the form of Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill that established tougher penalties for an acid-attack conviction - 14 years to life behind bars and a fine of up to $11,000.
But women's rights activists are demanding greater regulation of the sale and distribution of acid to prevent these attacks. Better rehabilitation services are also crucial for victims. After an attack, a victim faces physical challenges which require long-term surgical treatment, as well as psychological challenges, which demand in-depth counselling from psychologists at each stage of physical recovery.
In an Indian famous case, the Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW) helped Hasina Hussain get justice after her ex-boss Joseph Rodrigues poured 1.5 litres of sulphuric acid on her when she quit her job in his company in 1999. The acid melted her face, fused her shoulder and neck, burnt a hole in her head, merged her fingers and blinded her for life. In 2006, the Karnataka High Court sentenced Rodrigues to life imprisonment.
The National Commission for Women (NCW) is pushing for a specific law to deal with such cases. It has come up with a draft of the Prevention of Offences (by Acids) Act, 2008, which is with the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development for vetting. After its approval, the Bill will be sent to the Law Ministry before it is tabled in the Parliament to be passed as law. Activists and lawyers also believe that a strict law needs to be in place to regulate the procurement and sale of acid. The draft Bill proposed by the National Commission for Women suggests that a national acid attack victims' assistance board be set up to recommend to the government strategies for regulating and controlling the production, hoarding, import, sale and distribution of acids.
For the first time, acid attacks have been suggested to be included under a standalone provision in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). It has been proposed that two sections - 326A (hurt by acid attack) and 326B (attempt to throw or administer acid) - be added to the IPC. This is a non-bailable offence. The proposed law states that the attacker could get a jail term of 10 years to life for causing hurt by acid. He or she could be sent to jail for up to seven years for attempting to do so.
But lawyers say that the proposed law is not enough.The government must invoke a stringent law on the lines of the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, where no bail is granted to the accused if there is a prima facie case. Unless a stricter law is in place, acid attackers will roam free and can harm the victim again. Activists point out that the proposed law has no provisions for the protection of victims.
The new law has a provision for monetary compensation for acid victims. But lawyers fear that passing the buck to the accused may leave the victim without any support. In many cases, the accused belong to poor families. They will not be able to pay the compensation. There should be an additional clause in the law making where the State should take up the responsibility of compensating the victim if the accused fails to do so.The victim must also get financial help as soon as possible so that a surgery can be done immediately. Some states such as Karnataka have adopted a mechanism to pay the victim from State funds. Recently, the Delhi Government too announced that it would pay a compensation of up to ` 3 lakh to a victim in case there is disfigurement of the face. Thus, there is an immense need to come out with legal measures and medical reforms by our government to help these victims.