Survivors are faced with the ineffective implementation of the laws, and compensation and rehabilitation schemes, as well as government apathy.
This year marks three years since sections to deal with acid attacks were included in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Before this amendment, India had no specific legal provision to criminalise acid attacks and to provide compensation for the medical expenses to survivors of such attacks. Acid attack survivors relied on general criminal provisions – such as those on assault and grievous hurt – and acid attackers were given lenient sentences.
It was only in April 2013, in the aftermath of what is known as the Nirbhaya case, that the Indian legislature amended the rape laws of the country and created a specific offense for attempted or completed acid attacks.
The new sections in the IPC – 326A and 326B – provided a minimum sentence of ten years, extendable to life imprisonment, for an acid attack, and five to seven years’ imprisonment for attempted acid attacks.
Further, Section 100 of the IPC was amended to allow a defence of self-defence for apprehension of grievous hurt by acid attack. The Criminal Procedure Code was also amended to clarify that an attacker was liable to pay a fine and the medical expenses of the victim in addition to a compensation. A further amendment mandated all hospitals to provide medical aid to acid attack survivors free of cost and to immediately inform the police of an acid attack.
While survivors of acid attacks that have occurred since February 2013 (when the amendments criminalising such attacks came into force) are armed with the new stringent laws, survivors from before that continue to struggle in the courts to prove their cases under the generic criminal provisions of assault and grievous hurt.
A long fight
One among many of those who are unable to fully benefit from the new acid attacks law is Laxmi, currently leading a campaign to stop acid attacks along with her husband, Alok Dixit. At the age of 15, Laxmi suffered an acid attack due to the easy availability of acid over the counter.
In 2006, Laxmi filed a criminal writ petition in the Supreme Court against the Indian government demanding that it should take steps, similar to those in Bangladesh, to criminalising acid attacks and restricting the over-the-counter sale of acids.
Laxmi’s petition was instrumental in bringing the grievances of acid attack survivors and vulnerable sections of women to the forefront. It led the Supreme Court to hold the central and state governments for their inaction. This forced the government to respond and act immediately.
In April 2008, the central government began to take steps to limit the sale of acid. Several state governments, however, objected, claiming that acid was required in the household for cleaning and other such uses. Nevertheless, in February 2011 the Supreme Court directed the state governments to prepare compensation schemes for acid attack victims and to regulate the sale of acids in coordination with the Centre.
In August 2012, the central government told the Supreme Court that the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2012 – containing provisions criminalising acid attacks – was being tabled in parliament. In April 2013, the Bill passed into a law.
While there was now legal remedies for acid attack survivors, acid was still readily available, which meant attacks continued. Seven years after Laxmi had filed her petition, the central and the state governments were yet to take a suitable action to regulate the sale of acid.
The Supreme Court, while noting such pendency, directed the government to act expeditiously.
In response, in July 2013, the Indian government submitted draft model rules to the Supreme Court, titled ‘The Poisons Possession and Sale Rules, 2013.’
The government planned to circulate the model rules to state governments so that they could promulgate regulations on the sale of acid based on the model rules.
The Supreme Court, while taking note of the model rules, directed the state governments to comply with interim directions until the rules were framed and implemented. These interim directions included:
- Prohibiting over-the-counter sale of acid unless the seller maintained a register recording the details of the buyer such as name, address, quantity sold and purpose of buying acid.
- Requiring that sellers sell acid only after the buyer showed a government photo ID indicating their address.
- Prohibiting the sale of acid to anyone below 18 years of age.
- Requiring all stocks of acid to be declared by the seller to their local government authority within 15 days.
- Allowing the local authority to confiscate any undeclared acid and imposing a fine up to Rs 50,000.
Finally, the efforts of Laxmi and supporting activists were realised.
The matter was put to an end in April 2015 when the Supreme Court observed that all state governments had victim compensation schemes in place and directed the State Legal Aid Services Authority to ensure that such schemes were publicised and provided minimum compensation of Rs 3,00,000 for acid attack survivors.
It further directed that the home ministry (MHA) and family welfare ministry to ensure that the state governments give appropriate notice of the restrictions on the over-the-counter sale of acid.
While India has new stringent criminal laws, and compensation and rehabilitation schemes for acid attack survivors, these survivors are unable to take the fullest benefit due to the lack of effective implementation of the laws and schemes.
Acid, today, if not being sold visibly over the counter, is now being sold invisibly in opaque bags under the counter.
The fact that the MHA data indicates that the number of incidents have increased from 83 in 2011 to 309 in 2014 is evidence of the lack of effective implementation of laws regulating the sale of acids.
As recently as December 2015, the Supreme Court issued an order in response to a petition filed by an NGO on behalf of two acid attack survivors who had not received adequate compensation. Disappointed, the court noted:
“…attacks have been rampant for the simple reason that there has been no proper implementation of the regulations or control for the supply and distribution of acid…the state has failed to check the distribution of acid falling into the wrong hands even after giving many directions by this court in this regard. Henceforth, a stringent action be taken against those erring persons supplying acid without proper authorisation and also the concerned authorities be made responsible for failure to keep a check on the distribution of the acid…”
While activists like Laxmi are relentlessly pressurising the Indian government to fulfill its legal duty, if such lax implementation of the law continues, acid attack survivors and activists may be forced to knock on the doors of courts to impose the required pressure and scrutiny on the Indian and state governments to fulfill their mandate of ensuring justice to acid attack survivors.
Meher Dev is a human rights lawyer practising in the Delhi high court and Supreme Court of India.