Scars of unmitigated horror

Raima Kayal and Jaison Wilson report on vitriolage in India after the recent acid attack in Delhi.

Published: 19th December 2022 08:49 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th December 2022 08:44 AM   |  A+A-

ACID ATTACK

It is assumed that a disfigured girl has no place in society. It becomes extremely difficult for them to be accepted in society as they used to be.

Express News Service

The recent case of acid attack on a minor girl in Delhi has sparked a major debate over acid violence and the safety of women. Considered among the most heinous crimes against women, the impact of acid violence goes beyond physical harm. 

Acid attacks are defined by the National Commission on Women as intentional acts of violence in which perpetrators throw, spray, or pour acid on the victim. It causes immediate damage, disfigurement, pain and long-lasting medical complications for victims. These attacks are aimed at dominating and controlling women. 

Acid attacks were not treated as separate crimes until 2013’s landmark judgement delivered by the Supreme Court, in which the top court took cognizance of acid attacks and passed an order on the regulation of sales of corrosive substances.

The punishment of acid attack now comes under Section 326A which deals with – crimes voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means – and punishable with a minimum imprisonment of 10 years which is extendable to life along with a fine. The provisions of the law also adds punishment for denial of treatment to victims or police officers refusing to register an FIR. 

Besides, to regulate the ready availability of acids, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) based on SC’s judgement issued an advisory to all states on how to regulate acid sales and framed the Model Poisons Possession and Sale Rules, 2013 under The Poisons Act, 1919. These include:

  • Ban on over-the-counter sale of acid unless the seller maintains a logbook/register.
  • The sale is also to be made only when the buyer produces a photo ID, to prove that s/he is above 18 years of age.
  • Sellers are also required to declare all stocks of acid with the concerned SDM and the SDM can confiscate the stock and impose a fine of Rs 50,000 for a breach of directions.
  • Educational institutions, research laboratories, hospitals, etc, are required to keep and store acid, to maintain a register of usage of acid.

Despite this, the crime of acid attacks against women in India is becoming more common. Official figures show a marginal decrease attacks in the country from 228 cases of 2018 to 182 cases of 2020.

Worrying figures of vitriolage

In 2015, MHA issued an advisory to all states to ensure speedy justice in cases of acid attacks by expediting prosecution. However, the conviction rate has been dismal with progressing years. As many as 1,362 acid attacks were reported in the country in the last five years, according to NCRB data. In 2021, 176 cases were reported while the conviction rate was 20 per cent. In 2020, it was 182 cases and conviction rate was 71.4 per cent. In 2019, 249 cases were reported and conviction rate was 54.2 per cent. In 2018, it was seen 228 cases with 65.4 per cent conviction rate.

Photo: Raima Kayal

The year 2017 saw 244 cases and 35 per cent conviction rate. In 2016, 283 cases and 37 per cent conviction was recorded. Besides, the data also suggests that not all perpetrators were successfully booked in the police chargesheet. The NCRB records show that the charge sheeting rate of acid attacks stood in 2021 at 83 per cent. In 2020, the figures stood at 86 per cent while the police were able to prepare the chargesheet in 89 per cent of the cases in 2019. 

Also, many NGOs who work with the acid attack survivors claim that a large number of unreported acid attacks are going unnoticed among other cruelties against women. Away from the legal conundrums of low conviction and less chargesheeting, survivors of acid attacks have a world of issues to deal with.

Acid attack causes perpetual suffering to the victim. Acids are corrosive substances that will cause visible necrosis (death) of human skin tissue. They can cause serious poisoning and burning. Acid eats into two layers of the skin, the fat and the muscle underneath. In some cases, it even reaches the bones. The deepness of injury depends on the strength of the acid and the duration of contact with the skin.

While attackers often target the victim‘s face, the effects go far beyond skin damage. At times, acid even trickles down to affect the lower parts of the victim’s body.  The victims are later left shattered, mentally and emotionally. Their economic and social position also stunted.  

Inadequate compensation 

Pragya Prasun, an acid attack survivor who received the Nari Shakti Puraskar in 2018, said survivors face enormous challenges in gaining acceptance from society and financial aid from the government. 
“Women are tied to the stigma that beauty comes before everything else for them. It is assumed that a disfigured girl has no place in society. It becomes extremely difficult for them to be accepted in society as they used to be. So, it changes their world altogether,” she stated.

Speaking on the compensation, Prasun, who also runs the Atijeevan Foundation, which helps acid attack survivors to get back on their feet, said the procedure for compensation ensured by the government for the victims is quite tedious, while the amount remains inadequate.

In the 2013 ruling, the Supreme Court directed state legal services authorities to ensure that each acid victim receives the minimum compensation of Rs 3 lakh, and directed that full medical services be provided and private hospitals provide free treatment. The free treatment includes not only ‘physical treatment’ but also ‘medicines, food, bedding, and reconstructive surgeries’.

The amount should be given irrespective of a perpetrator being found guilty. The SC designated the district legal services authorities as the body in charge of processing applications for compensation, with the executive in charge of overseeing the scheme. Furthermore, since 2016, the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF) has provided additional assistance of Rs 1 lakh to acid attack victims. 

Major causes and what is in the mind of assailants?

While analysing cases of acid attacks, researchers found various reasons behind the violence — one of the prominent reasons was patriarchy that fuels unequal distribution of power and privilege between males and females.

Historically, and even to some extent in contemporary life, men have had jurisdiction over both the public sphere-political, economic, and cultural affairs and the private sphere of the home, whereas women were expected to involve themselves only with the private sphere of the home and the raising of children. Though, the situation is changing in the term of women emancipation.

Besides, rejection in love and marriage proposals is another major reason for acid attacks. Such crimes against women are often masked in the rhetoric of love. According to Dr Srijit Ghosh, HoD of Psychiatry, Calcutta National Medical College and Hospital, “The male cognitive psychology of the attacker is to take revenge. Conduct disorder, psychotic depression, EEG abnormalities, and suicidal ideation are the main psychological reasons. Hyper-testosterone is another major factor in such heinous crimes.”

“With patients suffering acid burns, our major focus remains on the recovery and surgical part. Patients’ social rehabilitation is next and that comes only after full physical recovery,” said Dr Aritra Kumar Ray, General Medicine, Park Clinic Hospital, Kolkata.

Regulation on acid sale

Besides, to regulate the ready availability of acids, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) based on SC’s judgement issued an advisory to all states on how to regulate acid sale 

The Model Poisons Possession and Sale Rules, 2013 was framed (under The Poisons Act, 1919) 

  • Ban on over-the-counter sale of acid unless the seller maintains a logbook/register
  • The sale is also to be made only when buyer produces photo ID, to prove they are above 18 years of age
  • Sellers are also required to declare all stocks of acid with the concerned SDM and the SDM can confiscate the stock and impose a fine of Rs 50,000 for a breach of directions
  • Educational institutions, research laboratories, hospitals, etc, are required to keep and store acid, to maintain a register of usage of acid

Commonly available acids used in domestic & industrial setting 

#Sulphuric Acid
In a low concentration, it serves as the electrolyte in the lead acid storage battery commonly used in vehicles

#Hydrofluoric Acid
Used for clouding electric light bulbs and in the petroleum industry, serves as a precursor in the production of refrigerants and propellants

#Nitric Acid
Used for cleaning nickel ornaments and separating gold from other metals

#Hydrochloric Acid
In a diluted form, it continues to be used as a toilet cleaner in many households

Intentional acts of violence

Acid attacks are defined by the National Commission on Women as intentional acts of violence in which perpetrators throw, spray, or pour acid on the victim

Compensation Scheme for Victims/Survivors of Sexual Assault/other Crimes - 2018 

  • The top court ordered State Legal Services Authorities to ensure minimum compensation of  Rs 3 lakhs is given to each acid victim
  • The amounts should be given irrespective of a perpetrator being found guilty, the Supreme Court said in a 2013 judgement 
  • Full medical service should be provided and private hospitals should also indulge themselves in free treatment 
  • The free treatment includes not only the ‘physical treatment’ but also providing with ‘medicines, food, bedding, and reconstructive surgeries’


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