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New Delhi: On 2 May, Preeti Rathi took a train to Mumbai where she was to start work as a nurse at Army Medical College, Colaba. A few minutes after she arrived in Mumbai, she was the target of an acid attack by a masked man.

Acid attacks are becoming increasingly common in India, and while there is no data on the number of such attacks across the country, the Union home ministry estimates around 500 attacks over the past four years. A report in the Times of India, that said there have been 56 such instances in Delhi alone in a three month period from February to April, indicates that the actual number could be much more.

Many of the attacks are carried out by men who have had their advances or proposals for marriage spurned by the victims, or by stalkers.

Their weapon of choice— acid—is easily available.

Sulphuric acid and hydrochloric acid are usually used in the attacks and they are available in local hardware for as low as 20-30 a litre.

Pragya Singh, campaign co-ordinator of Stop Acid Attacks (SAA), a campaign launched by Saraswati Siksha Samiti, a non-governmental organization, says that buying acid is as easy as buying candy.

Now, the government has decided to clamp down on acid sales in an attempt to curb acid attacks.

The decision was taken following two meetings between the officials of Union home ministry and state governments. The participants agreed that sale of acids of higher concentration should be regulated with exemptions for laboratories, commercial establishments and industries. Mint has reviewed minutes of the meetings, held through video-conferencing, and chaired by Union home secretary R.K. Singh.

The participants also agreed that all sales should be recorded, that acid should only be sold in “sealed, tamper-proof" containers, and that it would only be sold by licensed sellers and only after ascertaining the identity of the buyer.

“Retailers will now require a licence to sell acid and will obtain photo identity card of the buyer before sale," the minutes said. The government’s move comes after the Supreme Court rebuked it for not formulating a policy on effective regulation for over-the-counter sale of acid in states and the compensation, treatment and rehabilitation of acid victims. In February, the court had directed the Union home secretary to convene a meeting of state chief secretaries to decide on the issue and present a proposed law before it at next hearing on 9 July.

The apex court had noted that the ordinance promulgated after the brutal gang- rape of a 23-year-old paramedical student in the national capital was not adequate to compensate and rehabilitate acid victims. The ordinance was later subsumed into Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013.

“Let us do a comprehensive exercise and not merely prescribe deterrent punishment. The ordinance imposes a fine of up to 10 lakh on the offender. But if the convict is not in a position to pay, should the state not step in to treat, rehabilitate and compensate the acid attack victim? Should there not be a separate fund for this purpose?" The Times of India reported, quoting observations of a bench of Justices R. M. Lodha, J. Chelameswar and Madan B. Lokur.

Perpetrators of acid attacks also face up to 10 years in jail in case of non-fatal attacks.

But Singh, who is also an acid attack victim, said that this wasn’t enough. “We are demanding (more) rigorous imprisonment for such a horrendous crime," she said.

It may not be easy to monitor sales of acid.

Prabhsharan Singh, who heads the chemical division at industry lobby Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) said that acids are widely used in industries as diverse as fertilizers, water treatment, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, even food processing. A FICCI white paper argues that “it is practically not possible to control the use and sales and distribution of acids" that are made by thousands of companies, many of which are so-called small and medium sized enterprises. Indeed, the government’s decision only pertains to acids of higher concentration and potency and it would be impossible to monitor sales of all acids because they are used in a variety of industries, said a home ministry official who did not want to be identified.

India’s home secretary told state government officials that a balance needed to be achieved between the misuse of acid and its wide use for household, commercial and industrial purposes.

Still, doing so isn’t impossible, said Subhas Chakraborty, executive director, Acid Survivors Foundation India, a non governmental organization, who pointed to laws that check manufacture, storage and sale of acids in Bangladesh and Pakistan, two other countries where acid attacks are common.

“Manufacture and sale of acid, including storage, should be regulated in the country. If it is available easily, then it will be easy to purchase. Availability of acid should be stopped to public, other than where it is needed for the benefit of mankind," Chakraborty added.

And a chemical manufacturer said that the only people likely to be affected by the new rule would be retailers because most manufacturers already adhere to strict norms on sales and storage of hazardous chemicals, including acids.

The participants at the meetings also discussed raising the compensation amount for acid attack victims to 3 lakh around the country (it varies now, between 50,000 in Manipur and 3 lakh in Haryana).

Whatever it takes, activists such as Chakraborty are convinced it would be worth the effort.

Singh said that attackers generally target the face. If the harm is only external, then the worst that happens is that your skin melts, but there have been some cases where bones also melt, she added.

In many cases, victims end up inhaling the fumes and swallowing the acid, and that is when it becomes life threatening, she said. “Swallowing the acid can melt the food pipe and inhaling the fumes can cause damage to lungs, and both can result in death."

Singh added that although cosmetic surgery and skin grafting can heal external wounds, the scars never really disappear. On 1 June, Rathi, who inhaled acid fumes, died of a cardio-respiratory arrest in a Mumbai hospital. No arrests have been made yet.

PTI contributed to this story.

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