DELHI — On July 18, the Supreme Court passed orders restricting over-the-counter sale of acid. Anyone wishing to make such a purchase must be over 18 years of age and must provide a valid identity proof, address, purpose of purchase, and all of these must be registered by the traders. Traders should also constantly notify the police about their stock of acid and their sales.
Acid attacks have been made a non-bailable offence, with a minimum of eight to 12 years prison sentence and a maximum of life for perpetrators. The victims of such attacks are to be paid three lakh rupees in compensation by the state.
“Over-the-counter sale of acid is completely prohibited unless the seller maintains a log/register recording … the details of the person(s) to whom acid(s) is/are sold, the quantity sold and shall contain the address of the person to whom it is sold,” the court said in an interim order.
The court order calls for limits to be placed on the number of shops that can sell acid and for vendors to maintain records of purchasers. Shops that fail to keep such records will be punished with fines of up to ₹ 50,000 ($838).
All retailers have to declare their acid stock within 15 days of an order being placed, failing which they will be subjected to the fine and their stock confiscated.
The SC has asked medical and educational institutions requiring acid in bulk to take permission of Sub-Divisional Magistrate before making the purchase. Institutions such as hospitals must put a person in charge of the possession and security of their acid, and make sure that nobody leaves the premises carrying chemical products. “There shall be compulsory checking of students leaving the laboratories where acid is used,” the court said.
The court said that the violation of its directions “shall attract prosecution under the Poisons Act, 1919” and “the SDM (Sub-Divisional Magistrate) shall be vested with the responsibility of fining the violators and initiating prosecution.”
“It is the top court’s order and traders will definitely follow it, but maintaining a stock register is definitely an additional burden. Moreover, whether banning sale to minors is practically viable is the question. A trader cannot ask for an age proof of a customer, and the substance is mostly sold in hardware shops, where many labourers come in. And we cannot easily identify the age of the labourer,” said Praveen Khandelwal, secretary, Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT).
Acid attack — throwing acid with the intention to maim, disfigure or even kill the target — occurs in many countries but is most common in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.
“It cannot be overlooked that acid attack victims need to undergo a series of plastic surgeries and other corrective treatment. With regard to this, the solicitor general suggested that the compensation amount to be paid by states to acid attack victims must be enhanced to at least ₹ 3 lakh ($5,029),” the SC observed.
The apex court directed governments to pay one lakh of it within 15 days of the attack being reported. “The balance of ₹ 2 lakh shall be paid by the state or Union Territory concerned as expeditiously as possible and positively within two months of the incident.”
The orders came after the court recently heard a public interest litigation filed by an acid attack survivor, Laxmi, seven years ago. She was aged 15 when a spurned suitor had attacked her.
“I’m happy that this decision has come even although it took seven years,” said Laxmi. “I am not satisfied with the compensation package and it is something that we will bring up at the next hearing.”
The next hearing will be in four months, where details of a proposed rehabilitation scheme will be discussed.
“Putting salt on wounds” is how Archana Kumari, an acid attack survivor, described the amount of monetary compensation. Archana has spent ₹ 15 lakh on the 25 surgeries she has undergone since she was attacked in 2008. “This is a joke. Each surgery of mine cost more than ₹ 2 lakh. The court should have asked the government to bear the entire treatment cost,” she said.
“The State should take the complete responsibility for our treatment so that we can at least go back to our ordinary lives,” said Jayalakshmi, another survivor. “Though people are more sensitive to our plight nowadays, it is difficult for us to gain social acceptance completely. Both government and private agencies are unwilling to provide us with employment, even though we have been trained by a few NGO’s in a particular trade.”
In July last year, Sonali Mukherjee hit national headlines when she called on the government to allow her an assisted suicide, stating that her life had become intolerable as she could not afford the rounds of plastic surgery needed to help her lead a normal life. She had sustained more than 70% burns in an acid attack, a decade ago, which left her blind in one eye.
“What about others like me who have already been attacked? The only way you can imagine my agony is to experience it for yourself,” said Sonali, commenting on the prospective nature of the court orders.
Activists say no government officials spoke to survivors or civil society organisations before suggesting the compensation figure to the court.
Acid attacks have become a common occurrence in India, with a thousand incidents reported across the country in a year. “Often, the perpetrators are jilted lovers of the victims due to which the girls are then made to feel like they have wronged, which is the saddest part,” said Jameela Nishat, founder of Woman centric organisation Shaheen.
Alox Dixit, member of ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ campaign, cited the example of neighbouring country Bangladesh regarding the issue. “In 2002, the Bangladesh government enacted two laws viz Acid Offences Prevention Act and Acid Control Act. The combined affect of these Acts is that the investigation of such cases has to be completed within 30 days and court hearing to be finished in 90 days of the incident. They have also set up Acid Prevention Tribunals to exclusively deal with such cases,” he said.
Federal and state governments have been given three months by the SC to implement the latest rules.
Acid, including neat hydrochloric and sulphuric acid, is often available as cleaning products for toilets and plumbing and cost as little as Rs. 30 (50 cents) per litre.
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