India has long been witness to incidents of acid violence and according to available records the earliest acid attack was reported to have taken place in the Bombay Presidency of British India wherein Ali Mohammed Farag threw sulphuric acid in the face of Abdullah Mohammed Jabli on 6th September 1920. It has been a widely prevalent phenomenon and has been increasing at an alarming rate.
Statistics compiled by ASFI from media reports; RTI and clinical data suggest that there have been 882 attacks between 2010 and 2015.This does not take into consideration the large number of attacks that do not get reported from the predominantly rural areas of the vast sub-continent.
The estimated total number of incidents of acid violence in India have been pegged at around 500 per annum; but figures received from government has been consistently much less with figures of around 80-116 reported during the years 2010 till 2013. The reason for such lower figures perhaps is due to the fact that prior to the amendment, in 2013, of the Indian Penal Code, incidents of acid violence were being booked under section 326 (Voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or Means) and was clubbed with other offences. As a result statistics relating to acid violence were either not available or not reliable.
Way back in 2006, the Supreme Court had admitted a Writ petition (129 of 2006) on behalf of an acid victim Laxmi and issued directions for a review of the law governing such cases to provide relief to victims. Thereupon the National Commission for Women and the National Law Commission submitted their respective reports for changes in the criminal law.
Subsequently, two parallel developments of Media and public pressure and of judicial activism and oversight magnified the concern. There were high profile cases in 2012 that pricked India’s conscience: An acid victim Sonali Mukherji’s plea for voluntary death rather than a survivor’s life of penury and rejection and the brutal gang rape of a young paramedic Nirbhaya (pseudonym) in a moving bus led to widespread agitation, mass protests and media attention.
This spurred the government to constitute Justice J S Verma committee to recommend amendments to the Criminal Law so as to provide for quicker trial and enhanced punishment for criminals accused of committing sexual assault against women. The Committee submitted its report on January 23, 2013.
All the above developments ultimately led to a Presidential Ordinance that was eventually superseded by the extant Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013. The amendment led to inclusion of separate clauses (sections 326A and 326B) relating to acid violence treating acid attack as a specific offence; harsher punishment of minimum 10 years or up to life imprisonment; a fine that is just and reasonable to be made over to victim for care, treatment and rehabilitation; and offence to be cognizable and non bailable. These are in accord with the long pending demands of acid activists.
With the amendments in place, the reporting of incidents have improved and the figures for number of acid violence have recorded a substantial jump from earlier figures of 80 – 116 to 225 during 2014 and further to 249 during 2015. ASFI is of the view that this still does not represent the complete picture because a substantial number of cases still continue to remain unreported.
The Supreme Court, while hearing the Writ petition (129 of 2006) filed on behalf of acid victim Laxmi, had, in July 2013, given directions for enactment of appropriate measures for regulation of sale of acid; measures for proper treatment, after care, and rehabilitation of acid attack survivors; compensation payable to victims by the State / or creation of some separate fund for payment of compensation to them.
The Criminal Procedure Code provides for a scheme to allocate funds for compensation to victims who have suffered loss or injury as a result of crime and require rehabilitation pursuant to which several states have prepared Victim Compensation Schemes which are not uniform. The Court had directed all states to follow a uniform procedure of granting a minimum amount of compensation Rs 300,000 in each acid attack case of which Rs.100,000 to be paid within 15 days of occurrence to facilitate immediate medical attention and the balance not later than 2 months.
Pursuant to above, all state governments and union territories have enacted regulations restricting sale of acids over the counter. Compensations are also being paid. Some state have gone forward with higher compensation and some have decided to offer them jobs. However, free medical treatment at private hospitals continues to elude the victims. Also no appropriate scheme for rehabilitation has been drawn up on a national scale.