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According to home ministry data, every third day, a woman becomes victim of an acid attack in India. Photo: HT
According to home ministry data, every third day, a woman becomes victim of an acid attack in India. Photo: HT

Acid sales in free flow despite Supreme Court ban in 2013

Despite the fact that the Supreme Court banned over the counter sales of acid in July 2013, its ruling is far from enforced or being followed

New Delhi: When she went down to the local provision store and asked for ‘tezaab’, Asha Mukherjee was conducting a curious experiment—with herself. The shopkeeper asked her how many bottles she needed. She had practised the conversation many times over but her emotions got the better of her.

She took off her scarf, which covered her head and most of her face, and told him, “See what ‘tezaab’ did to me. Do you know the Supreme Court has banned ‘over-the-counter’ sale?"

The shopkeeper’s timid response meant nothing to either—Tezaab is an acid that is used to clean rusted tools and as a domestic cleaning agent. It is also among corrosive acids that are thrown on women in what are known as ‘acid attacks’—a form of violence against women in South Asia.

They can lead to disfigurement, physical disability, blindness and death.

At a press conference on Monday, Mukherjee spoke about this experiment, still shocked that the chemical was sold so easily—11 years after it ruined her life.

In another lifetime, Mukherjee used to be a dancer at Rajdoot hotel in Delhi. A jealous colleague threatened her. She reported the threat to Lajpat Nagar police station, who sent her back.

Twenty days later, on December 19, 2004, the colleague stopped her outside her home, threw acid on her face and ran away.

“In India, acid has two uses—on women and in the bathroom," she told journalists at the launch of a campaign called ‘War against acid violence’ in North India. Northern Indian states account for 58% of acid attacks in the country. In comparison, eastern states account for 18%, followed by the west 16%, and south 8%.

According to home ministry data, every third day, a woman becomes victim of an acid attack in India.

Three surgeries and three months at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences were not able to save Mukherjee’s sight—the corrosive acid had burned the nerves behind her eyes, permanently damaging her vision. She is 30 now and undergoing treatment at Shankara Netralaya in Chennai, where doctors hope to partially restore her vision in one eye.

Mukherjee and 500 other acid attack survivors have come together under the banner of Acid Survivors Foundation of India (ASFI), whose main aim is to reintegrate survivors in mainstream society. ASFI is an initiative of the Kolkata-based Srei Foundation, a public charitable trust that was founded in 2001.

“We plan to set up a psycho-social burn-cum-rehabilitation centre to provide holistic care to survivors," said Rahul Varma, national director and CEO of ASFI, which he said is working with several other organisations to ensure adequate compensation, free or subsidised medical treatment, and rehabilitation for survivors, and exemplary punishment to culprits.

The campaign against acid attacks has barely started—despite the fact that the Supreme Court banned over the counter sales of acid in July 2013, Mukherjee’s experiment showed that its ruling is far from enforced or followed.

In January, Mint ran a series of articles on the increasing incidence of acid attacks in India, which can be accessed here:

Until the 2013 Criminal Law Amendment Act, passed in the months after national public outrage over the gang-rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012, acid attacks were clubbed together with a list of offences intended to cause grievous harm. The current law, under Section 326A, covers cases where permanent damage, disability or deformity is caused by the attack and lays down imprisonment ranging between 10 years to life. Section 326B punishes attempts to throw acid or throwing acid with the intention of causing permanent or partial damage. The punishment includes imprisonment ranging from five to seven years.

ASFI already has chapters in eastern, southern and western parts of the country. “Our vision is to eradicate this heinous crime," said Divita Kanoria, who heads the group’s northern chapter. “ASFI uses a multi-pronged approach to support its cause. At the first stage, it provides care and support to the identified victim. This is followed by community-based programmes to spread awareness and prevent recurrence of such attacks through collaboration with NGOs and supporting service organisations. It has also partnered several organisations that offer support services to victims and their family."

Mukherjee said she still stands in front of the mirror from time to time to check if she can catch a glimpse of her face staring back at her. “I cannot see. But I want to. One day, I want to look at myself," she said.

NOTE: Helpline Number for Acid Attack Survivors: +91-90076-12727

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