Mamta, a Delhi-based beautician, has been living with blindness in her left eye and scars of acid burns on her face for the past 12 years. She had been married just a few months when her jealous husband flung acid on her face after she refused to give in to his insatiable demands for dowry. In 2010 when her attack took place, there were no specific laws to punish acid attacks. Though Mamta managed to file a case for an attempt to murder and domestic violence against her husband, he was soon released on bail and has been missing since.
It was only after the 2006 PIL of then-16-year-old acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal that the Supreme Court passed an order to ban selling of acid in shops without regulation in 2013. However, despite the multiple laws, IPC amendments and additions to the CrPC dealing with acid attack perpetrators and survivors, the heinous crime continues unabated and survivors find it hard fight the prolonged and cumbersome battle for justice.
Mamta's case has since been treated as an acid attack case and she has received Rs 3 lakh in compensation. The survivor, who has appeared on several television news shows and documentaries on acid attack survivors and works with a number of non-profit organisations, claims that the amount barely covers the cost of corrective surgeries and rehabilitation.
In addition, the lack of legal provisions for skilling and gainful employment as well as psychological rehabilitation of survivors remains missing. Mamta has been working as contractual staff at the Delhi High Court since 2018. “My attacker is still not caught. There is no job security. I have not got a raise in four years, neither have I been made a permanent employee,” she states, adding that the government and law has failed her.
“I have spent lakhs on my treatment. I have no more money. I have lost all hope for justice and faith in the legal system,” the former beautician rues.
Acid attack laws: Only good on paper?
Until 2013, acid attacks were not considered a separate crime and there were no specific laws under the Indian Penal Code to penalise such crimes. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 added Section 326A and Section 326B to the IPC, thus creating special provisions for the victims of acid attack. Under these sections, perpetrators of acid attacks are punishable with a minimum imprisonment of 10 years which is extendable to life along with fine. The punishment for attempting to throw acid on a person is punishable for a time period of 5-7 years under Section 326B irrespective of the nature of the damage caused to the victim.
The law also lays down provisions for punishing medical institutions, both public and private, for refusing to treat acid attack victims with imprisonment of up till a year. It also states that police officers can be charged with dereliction of duty and may face imprisonment of up to 10 years in case they refuse to lodge FIRs.
Mamta states that doctors often do not comply with the rules easily, especially if the victim is from a marginalised community or does not have social capital. “Since acid attacks are a criminal offence, doctors often ask for proof and the onus to get treatment is on the survivor,” she tells Outlook. She adds that at the time of her attack, crucial delays in treatment by doctors led to the loss of vision in her left eye.
The Prevention of Acid Attacks and Rehabilitation of Acid Attack Victims Bill, 2017 provides for prevention of acid attacks by regulation of sale, supply and use of acid or other measures and rehabilitation of women victims of acid attacks and matter connected therewith.
Apart from the IPC and the Evidence Act, The Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) also deals with acid attacks under Section 375A and contains important suggestions and stipulations for state governments and enforcement authorities.
Under six key subsections, Section 375A stipulates several things such as urging state governments to draw schemes to provide compensation and rehabilitation to survivors. It suggests that District Legal Services Authority or the State Legal Services Authority should decide compensation on a case by case basis under the guidance of court recommendations. It says that courts have the discretion decide compensation if it finds the compensation and rehabilitation being offered unsatisfactory. It also adds that State or District Legal Services Authority must try and make medical treatment available to the victim free of cost provided the victim is successful in obtaining a certificate from a police offer ranked not less than the area’s magistrate.
Advocate Charu Wali Khanna of the National Commission of Women tells Outlook that like all laws dealing with gender based violence, acid attack laws also suffer the problem of improper implementation and the onus to get justice and compensation is on the survivor.
"In most cases, we see that survivors have to run from pillar to post to get compensation which is low, to begin with," she states. Under the Victim Compensation Scheme (Sec. 357A of Cr. P.C.). all survivors of acid attacks are liable to receive up to Rs. 3 lakhs as compensation, payable in addition to the fine paid by the perpetrator. Survivors are also entitled to medical treatment free of charge in both private and state-owned medical institutions. Further Section 357B of the CrPC clarifies that this compensation mentioned in the predecessor section will be provided in addition to the compensation already provided under Section 326A and Section 326B of the IPC.
Low compensation, no rehabilitation
Activists working with acid attack survivors also claim that the CrPC recommendations were rarely implemented by states or authorities. Women’s rights activist Yogita Bhayana, who works with PARI and is also the national convenor of SAFMA, has been working along with a team of lawyers on a writ petition on the victim compensation scheme which includes acid attack. The petition argues that the amount being disbursed to acid attack survivors is very low and the process is cumbersome and difficult for the victims family to follow, especially if they belong to marginalised communities.
“We have also filed case regarding NALSA victim compensation scheme 2018 pursuant to directions of supreme court in Nipun Saxena v UOI in which reporting of crime by police to district legal services authority is mandatory and victim should not be made to run from pillar to post for seeking redressal or compensation,” Charu Wali Khanna tells Outlook.
Though reported instances of acid attacks are fewer in comparison to other forms of gender-based violence, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows that there were 14 cases of acid attacks reported every month across the country in 2021. Activists fear that actual the numbers might be higher since several cases continue to be unreported.
In India, almost all laws relating to women’s safety have low conviction rates and acid attacks laws are no different.
In 2015, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an advisory directing all states to ensure speedy justice in acid attack cases by expediting the prosecution process. However, convictions remain low. In 2021, 89 percent of acid attack cases were chargesheeted but only 20 percent were convicted. Mamta who has been fighting for justice in courts for years states the attitudes of police and legal authorities including lawyers and judges remains patriarchal and that in many cases, survivors are advised to marry their attackers or opt for amiable solutions so that the man’s “life is nor ruined”.
“Police cannot really refuse to lodge acid attack cases because in most instances. As opposed to certain other cases of gender based violence, acid attack injuries are too visible to ignore,” Yogita Bhayana tells Outlook. However, when it comes to convictions, the protracted legal trials are often difficult for survivors to endure “Treating acid burns is a complicated, painful and expensive process that takes up most of a survivors’ time and effort. Most survivors need to focus on healing first rather than run around courts for justice,” Bhayana adds.
While the process of seeking justice may be hard, Bhayana adds that the problem is also rooted in the easy availability of acid itself. Which brings us to the second aspect of laws relating to acid attacks - the regulation of the sale and purchase of the substance itself.
Sale and purchase of acid
The Supreme Court in 2013 passed an order regarding the regulation of sales of corrosive substances. It said that persons or institutions selling acid must have official licenses to do so and be registered under The Poisons Act, 1919. Following the SC order, the Ministry of Home Affairs formulated the Model Poisons Possession and Sale Rules, 2013 and asked states to frame their own rules based on the model rules.
As per the MHA model rules, over-the-counter sale of acid is only allowed when sellers maintain a logbook or a register recording details of the the sale. These include identification details of the buyer, quantity of the acid sold and reason for procuring the acid. In such cases, buyers need to be above the age of 18 and need to produce a verifiable photo and address proof such as Aadhaar card.
Rules for sellers include mandatory declaration of all acid stocks with concerned Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) within 15 days of procurement. The SDM is liable to confiscate undisclosed stashes of the corrosive substance. Sellers can be fined up to Rs 50,000 for a breach of any of these MHA rules.
Not just sellers, several other entities such as chemical laboratories, educational institutions, hospitals, and other government or other Public Sector Undertakings departments may have stores of acid but they too need to declare their stocks with the SDM. In such institutions, the MHA rules suggest that a person needs to be stipulated as in charge of the possession and storing of the acid.
Police action comes once crime is committed, not before
In Delhi, the storage and sale of acid is regulated by the Delhi Poisons Possession and Sales Rules, 2015. To legally sell acid, the seller needs to procure a licence from the Delhi Police’s Licensing Department and renew it every year following due verification of their premises by police personnel.
Police officers in Delhi, however, admit that despite regular checks by the police, sellers and buyers manage to get away with sale/purchase of such substances without following the proper verification or licensing processes due to lapses of the implementation of the law.
"Strictly speaking, police action in acid attack cases starts once an illegal use of the substance is reported. Preventing the crime is harder since there here we also need the help of civil authorities," a Delhi Police officer from Burari said on condition of anonymity. When it comes to sale and purchase of acid, there are other aspects involved such as manufacture, transportation, storage. "We can raid shops or sellers for acid if we have specific information about unreported acid stocks. But even for that, we need permission from civil authorities," the officer said.
Following the Dwarka incident, several questions were raised on the effectiveness the police and government in Delhi. In this case, the accused seem to have procured the acid from online retailer Flipkart. Lieutenant-Governor Vinai Kumar Saxena asked Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal “how could the accused have gathered so much courage” in the Dwarka case.
Police however claim that despite the rules, the accused often manage to procure small quantities of acid from local pharmacies or drug stores without showing any proof.
Activists like Yogita Bhayana claim that the real issue lies in the lack of a central or court-monitored body to oversee implementation and accountability. Bhayana states that in tier-two neighbourhoods, travelling hawkers selling cleaning supplies, brooms and mops also carry acid among their wares. “They don’t have any licence nor do they demand any ID,” Bhayana states adding that for most middle to low income households, expensive cleaning products like Harpic is not an affordable alternative.
“An effective restriction on over-the-counter sale and purchase of acid requires the government to provide cheaper cleaning product alternatives to poor and rural household where such products may not be available or accessible,” Bhayana adds.
In the meantime, many like Mamta have become disillusioned with the legal system. “Every time there is an attack, questions are raised about the effectiveness of laws and awareness campaigns. But soon, the world moves on. Only our scars remain,” a resigned Mamta states.