I am writing this out of an agonising concern and with the primary objective of spreading awareness and encouraging proactive engagement of people for checking this.
It is about the lethal acid attacks on women by dejected men wishing to settle scores. The Supreme Court, acting on a public interest litigation by Laxmi, a victim of acid attack, has issued strong directions on several aspects of this heinous crime.
In India, around one thousand acid attacks take place annually. The perpetrators are men who attack women for various reasons of rejection, like a failed love affair, or rejection of overtures, etc. The acid thrown on the victims disfigures them for life. Some even go blind. Such women suffer for the rest of their lives, while perpetrators virtually go scot free.
Acid victims have no money for expensive corrective medical surgeries. They lose out on employment in view of disfigurement. Their education gets disrupted. Their relatives abandon them, as stated by several victims. They fight on their own or give up. Some even commit suicide after being unable to bear the suffering.
What the Supreme Court has directed needs wide dissemination so that society does not have even a single more incident of the gruesome crime. Here are the key directives of the Supreme Court which we must know:
Bring acid under the Poison Act of 1919, which means that acid will no more be bought off the shelf as earlier. It will be strictly regulated, licensed, controlled, stored, protected, sold, under stiff license conditions as poison is. Hence acid is on par with poison.
The buyer will have to justify the reason for buying. He must produce his photo identity card and sign the sale register. Acid cannot be sold to a minor. All stocks must be declared before the local SDM every fortnight. Any undisclosed stock will be confiscated and the seller fined Rs 50,000. Hence the onus is on the shopkeeper to follow the rules, violation of which makes him criminally liable.
The seller should submit the details of the sale to the local police within three days of transaction. A standard operating procedure must be maintained for handling and management of acids.
Acid attack crime shall be strictly a non-bailable offence, with life imprisonment. The state will compensate the victim with Rs 3 lakh - Rs 1 lakh to be released immediately and the other two within three months.
States where laws to this effect have been passed must tighten the rules as directed, as they were found grossly inadequate. These clear directions will remain in force till the states notify their rules.
More needs to be done
Though the court directives would help, there is need to have more stringent laws. The accused should be made to pay as well. Why should only the state pay? While the culprit gets jail he must also pay a hefty fine to the extent he can, to be assessed by the court. He could as well pay a lifelong maintenance allowance to the victim from what he earns. Unless the perpetrators are financially hit, they would not realise the suffering of the woman.
Rs 3 lakh is not enough for corrective medical surgeries. The victim needs access to free medical care all her life as the damage is exceedingly serious. Hence government hospitals must provide this.
The sale of acid should not be merely on the production of a photo ID card. The person concerned must bring two witnesses from his locality -- can be the village pradhan or the local councillor.
Media channels must give public interest messages on the issue, most of all, the government-run media. If we are to prevent this agony from spreading we must disseminate this information widely through our own social networks of friends, market associations and community leaders.
Most of all, as citizen watch, we can do decoy buying and see whether the instructions are being obeyed. Law schools can conduct social audits as student research projects to see if directives issued are being carried out in letter and spirit. And make such findings public. This must become a part of training curriculum of police, magistracy, civil services and civil defence.
Last and the most important is something that Bangladesh has done. It enacted two laws specifically on this, namely the Acid Offences Prevention Act, and the Acid Control Act. According to these, the investigation has to be completed within 30 days and trial in 90 days in acid prevention tribunals. Acid attacks have sharply fallen since.
In India, such changes are 'judiciary-driven' and not executive-driven, when this is their primary responsibility. Hence the need for self-policing and self-help.