New Delhi: The Supreme Court cracked down on the sale of acid, currently available over the counter, to try and put an end to the regular and horrific attacks on women across the country that lead to disfigurement and death. Among the latest of these incidents was one in Mumbai where an unknown attacker hurled acid at a 23-year-old woman as she got off a suburban train on 2 May—she died of her injuries a month later.
The Supreme Court bench of justices R.M. Lodha and F.M.I. Kalifulla imposed strict restrictions on the sale of the chemicals on Thursday, castigated state governments for not providing enough compensation to victims and stipulated the amount of money that should be given to them. Apart from this, suspects can also be arrested without a warrant and bail will be up to the court.
Anyone buying acid will need to furnish government-approved identity proof and state the reason for the purchase, which has to be recorded by the seller, the court said.
The court said compensation by state governments was “grossly inadequate” and set this at Rs.3 lakh to facilitate immediate medical attention and relief. Out of this, Rs.1 lakh will be paid to the victim within 15 days of the incident and the rest will be paid “as expeditiously as possible” and possibly within two months, it added.
A petition filed by an acid attack victim in 2006 had sought the regulation of acid sales as well as adequate compensation and rehabilitation of acid attack victims.
The easy availability of acids—they are used as household cleaning agents for instance—combined with the appalling attitude towards women in India and other parts of the subcontinent has made the corrosive agents a handy weapon for attackers, rights groups have said.
States will now have to follow the rules introduced by the central government for regulating the sale of acid and only those that have even more stringent conditions will be spared the government’s regulatory framework, the court said. It also made acid attacks a cognizable and non-bailable offence, which means that the police can arrest suspects without a warrant and bail will be a matter of judicial discretion.
The empowerment of women and bringing about a change in the mindset of a society in which women are highly unsafe are equally important, said Ranjana Kumari, director at Centre for Social Research.
“My argument is that as a citizen of India, my safety is the government’s responsibility and it must fend for me and in case of the state’s failure, I must be compensated,” she said.
While welcoming the step, others said it’s also important to establish processes to track the build-up to such incidents to try and prevent them before they occur.
“Incidents of acid attack largely arise out of rejection of unwanted male attention,” said Gouri Choudhury, director at ActionIndia, an organization that has worked extensively on women’s rights. “While banning the sale of acid is a compulsory step, the focus needs to be shifted to conditions prior to the incident.”
The bench also banned the sale of acid to those below 18 years of age and ordered that all sellers must declare their stock of acid within 15 days of the order. Those who fail to comply with this can be slapped with a fine of as much as Rs.50,000 and their stock can be confiscated.
“I am very happy with the order. It is a comprehensive order and such attacks will stop now,” said Laxmi, the petitioner, who survived an acid attack. Laxmi, who uses only one name, was 16 when the attack took place in 2005 by an unwanted suitor.
Effective implementation of the court order is important, Laxmi said. And while the order may deter future attacks, women who have suffered such attacks continue to face health issues. Acid attack victims have to contend with disfigurement, excruciating pain, the need for continuous reconstructive surgery and social ostracism, apart from debilitating and often fatal health problems.
The court will resume hearings into the matter after four months when it will focus on the issue of rehabilitation of acid attack victims.
“We need immediate medical treatment and further medical attention, which can happen only after the court resumes the hearings,” Laxmi said. “We had also asked for government jobs and we are now waiting for the court to decide on that.”
Recognizing that the chemical needs to be used at educational institutions, research laboratories, hospitals and government departments, the bench issued guidelines to ensure accountability.
All such institutions will now have to maintain a record with the concerned sub-divisional magistrate, with a designated official accountable for possession and safekeeping of acids. Anyone who accesses such storage areas will have to undergo compulsory checking.
To harmonize the varying standards in different states, the court relied on the “model rules” submitted by the solicitor general in the previous hearing. The rules detail the kinds of acid that can be sold, concentration levels, the process of and conditions for issuing licences, procurement by individuals and institutions. The court has given the states three months to implement the rules.