A desire to disfigure

It really should be the person who makes threats or indeed carries out acid attacks who should lose face in society, not the innocent victim, writes Lalita Panicker.
UPDATED ON JUL 29, 2013 02:44 AM IST

It takes less than the price of two samosas and a cup of tea at a roadside stall to destroy a life forever. A litre of acid costs as little as Rs 16 and is available just about everywhere. Year after year, we reel in horror listening to the stories of those who have survived these vicious attacks by thwarted lovers, by those seeking revenge against another family, by jealous colleagues. It is almost unbearable to hear of how these young women as they invariably are, live their lives in pain, ostracised and with little hope of their lot improving.

While the Supreme Court’s ruling seeking much greater scrutiny of those buying acid is welcome, it would not be pessimistic to say that is just the beginning of a long and uphill battle against people driven by the desire to disfigure. Across our towns and cities, there are numerous little factories, not really on the radar of any official agency, which manufacture acid. Unlike in other countries, such fly by night operations routinely escape scrutiny. If such a factory employs less than eight people, it is not even in the organised sector.

With buying acid in shops becoming more difficult, what is to stop a person from trying to buy the substance directly from the source? Or, indeed, to prevent an employee from siphoning off acid to sell in the black market? Do we even have a register of how many factories actually manufacture acids in the country? Then there is the prevalence of acid in automotive repair shops, battery production factories, goldsmith shops and in cleaning agents which can be bought over the counter. To monitor the movement of acids in all these establishments requires a gigantic and organised effort.

Most acid victims suffer permanent damage because they don’t get treatment in time. Such is the corrosive effect of the acid that it takes just seconds to cause grievous damage. But, even if a victim were to reach a medical facility in time, the best she can hope for is to be treated in the burns ward. Now acid burns are very different from other types of burns. There are many things like using cold water or ice that are not advisable for an acid victim. The problem that we hardly have any medical facility which has the equipment or trained personnel to treat acid victims. The treatment of the acid victim is a prolonged one if she survives the assault. It requires extensive reconstructive surgery and psychological counselling both of which are in short supply. Even if reconstructive surgery were to be made available, it is prohibitively expensive. The rehabilitation of an acid victim is all the more difficult in India where anyone who looks different is treated with little respect or understanding. The acid victims then find that they become an economic and social burden on their own families.

Little attention has been given to the psychological trauma that an acid victim suffers. Reconstructive surgery, even done by an extremely skilled surgeon, does not give the victim back the physical attributes she once had. Then there is the constant fear of going out in public not least because of offensive stares and taunts. In a society which sets great store by looks, the acid victim is not likely to find integrating back into society, leave alone leading a normal life, easy. Such a person needs intensive counselling to get back her courage and ability to carry on for a lifetime with emotional and physical scars. But such services are hardly available except through a few NGOs.

The legal battle against the perpetrator too is weighted against the woman who has to battle severe pain and economic deprivation after such an attack. Culprits are often let off on technicalities, free to roam the streets and terrorise the victim again or attack other innocent women. The perpetrator almost always feels little remorse, much like rapists. They feel, more often than not, that the woman asked for it.

In a documentary on acid victims in Pakistan, a husband who scarred his wife seemed to think that he had the right to do this to her since she was his property. Many may argue that such warped people also require counseling, but it will take a good long time to change such mindsets. So, the real challenge is in making it very difficult, almost impossible for people to get their hands on acid. This will mean strict vigilance in laboratories, even college and school ones, to ensure that no one sneaks the deadly substance out. Establishments using acids should be made to go through an audit to show how much acid has been purchased and how much used. A couple of lakhs of rupees in compensation is simply nowhere near enough to deal with the unending trauma that a victim has to face.

In many cases, harassment and stalking are treated as not serious enough to go to the police until it is often too late. This pattern is also seen in dowry deaths. The harasser or stalker is not likely to improve his ways and the only answer is for the law to step in. In the case of dowry harassment we have seen that promises by the offender to improve his behaviour is usually a ploy to buy time before a really ghastly crime is committed. So, the police needs to take threats to disfigure — if I cannot have you then no one can — very seriously. If such a person knows that he is under the scanner of the law, then chances are that he won’t think he can get away with harming a woman. It really should be the man who makes threats or indeed carries them out who should lose face forever, not the innocent victim.

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