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Acid Attack in India – where do we stand today?

Acid attack is not something unheard of in India. It has shocked the conscience of our nation again and again – with mutilated faces, unbeaten survivors coming to the frontlines to share their horrific stories, and families driven to bankruptcy supporting recovery costs. The Indian Penal Code was modified in 2013 for the first time to add regulations tailored to acid attacks. But have we done enough? Do enough of us care? Why should we care? Why should we care anymore than we do for general fight for women’s rights and safety in India about acid attacks?

Because acid attack is possibly the worst infliction on another human – leading to complete debilitation, loss of income and opportunity, and even social sequestration– and it can happen to anyone, at any time. The means to this evil remain quite accessible to most and the causes provoking such malice can be unimaginably trivial.

Accepting a drink from a local shopkeeper? Or rebuking harassment on the streets? Just being in home sitting on a couch? These are all known causes of attacks on acid attack survivors. The last story – is that of Piyali Dutta - who got caught in a crossfire and now is an acid survivor for life. Sonali Mukherjee’s story – attacked while sleeping in her own house for standing up to harassment – is one that should keep all of us awake as it could have been, or still can be, anyone. 85% of victims are women, so acid attack can overwhelmingly be classified as gender violence. For the 15% male victims, the primary cause of attack is property dispute.

What factors allow such attacks? Un-counseled anger and frustration is behind the crimes as much as pre-disposition to sociopathic traits, and violence and societal chauvinism plays a significant role (85% of the victims are women). But the real culprit to blame is the ease to get away with it. Anger over rejection (41% of attacks in India from 2010 – 2013 was from spurned lovers) causes the desire to lash out and inherent disregard for women in specific and human suffering in general seeds the thought, but the lax laws - both to limit availability and to counter the crime – is what lets the perpetrators (who happen to list from white collar officials to migrant workers) convert their thoughts in to action.

Before insertion of Sections 326A-326B of Indian Penal Code (as recent as 2013), acid attack could only be prosecuted as violence against women. This tremendously hindered data availability and made arrest and punishment subjective and lenient. The Indian Penal Code amendment on the 2nd of April 2013 included provisions for prosecution of perpetrators, treatment and rehabilitation of the victims, right to self-defense against acid attack and control of acid sales. The laws however, for sure ‘too late’, might also be ‘too little’ in their current state.

Let’s take a look at the acid sales restrictions, prosecution and rehabilitation realities post 2013 to understand why.

When consulted, Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI; partner of Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI)), broke down the acids taking primarily West Bengal, India and Bangladesh as examples. Availability of acids (12% or higher concentration, or in forms which can be concentrated to higher strength) depends on usage. The organized sector – fertilizer and other heavy industries – are mostly under regimented control system, so leakage or misappropriation, although feasible, are not too common.

The unorganized sector on the other hand, in lieu of the large migrant and rural population in these sections, have a myriad of acids abundant depending on the industry. Gem and jewelry business – a prime consumer of aqua regia – thrives on mostly migrant workers who therefore have access. Hard to track and censor, they therefore need to be targeted through awareness campaigns (one of the most successful ways to curb attacks – as demonstrated in Bangladesh – has been by limiting availability through massive campaigns). Assailants can also concentrate lower strength acids still available unrestricted.

The statistics substantiate the importance of source of availability in tackling this problem. Murshidabad – the cotton hub of Bengal – have much higher number of attacks given the availability of acid used for fading work which is often sub-contracted to a hard to trace and migrant worker base.

Paints and household cleaners remain another easy to avail source and even though regulation has now been passed in India, the police force is understaffed to go after the numerous shops selling acids as household cleaners or cleaners with acid above permissible levels.

In general, the logistics of confiscating and testing illegal chemicals and prosecuting offenders remain extremely cumbersome for most South East Asian countries. Additionally, passed regulations in which the Supreme Court assigns the Sub division officer (SDO) responsible for overseeing control) doesn’t detail out ownership and implementation roles specifically to make sure funds and resources are dedicated to this effort.

In sum, loopholes remain owing to falling a step short in the laws in defining ownership and allocating resources for making sure the provision of selling acid only with records to control access gets implemented.

The prosecution statistics published in the situational analysis of acid violence in eastern India report published by ASFI tell a similar story. Of the attacks registered from 2010-2014 (most prior to 2013 went into grievous assault bucket) only 60% resulted in filing of charge sheets - 81% of the perpetrators were able to obtain bail, 49% are absconding.

Even securing rehabilitation and government compensation as provisioned by law now (mere 3 lakh in comparison to average 50 lakh needed for 50-60 surgeries depending on the severity of the attack) remain painstakingly slow process (only 3 out of the 38 cases ASFI headquarters in Kolkata has filed for has received compensation so far).

Drawing comparison to acid control legislations successfully implemented in Bangladesh (now constantly mentioned in international forums as exemplary in this regard), the factors hindering the same from happening in India need to be considered and countered. The size of the country, region to region differences, and lack of coordination between center and state governments come up as the prime factors. So specific roles and responsibilities and resource allocation is vital.

Awareness campaigns appealing to public to not sell, distribute, or use – especially with listed consequences of high profile convictions and warning women to be aware of the signs and to take threats seriously (in almost all of the cases being handled by ASFI Kolkata there had been pre-warnings and even something as simple as knowing to scream when being approached is known to be a deterrent) need to have central govt. allocated funding. Same is needed for widely publishing immediate first aid steps (acid burns need to be treated fast and right to minimize damage). Elimination of bureaucracy is needed for victim rehabilitation (most are unable to continue previously held jobs, many are shunned and ostracized by their families).

Definition of roles in implementing control, tougher punishment (Bangladesh has up to capital punishment for acid violence) and fast track courts dedicated for trying these cases comes next. Most victims lose the motivation to pursue the fight after the initial months pass as the irreversibility of their condition become apparent to them. Hopelessness and depression sinks in replacing anger and motivation for justice, lowering further the rate of prosecution and conviction of assailants.

On the opposite end of the globe - Columbia responded swiftly in shock and horror after attack on Natalia Ponce De Leon in 2014. Within 2 years of the attack Columbia passed a law named after her, making penalty for acid attacks comparable to that for homicide.

Why does our conscience as a nation need to be shocked again and again with multiple faces over so many years leaving us vulnerable in the meantime to such a cruel and destructive crime? The life the survivors have to lead have made us shudder at thought - we need to continue shuddering until every woman (and man) in India is safe against acid violence. Today? We are far from that place.

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