In an effort to halt, or at least curb, the horrific phenomenon of acid attacks on women in the country, India’s highest court has ordered national and state governments to regulate the sale of acid chemicals by classifying them as a “poison.” Under the directive issued on Thursday, acid will only be sold to people above the age of 18 who have a proper identity card and also provide a valid reason for such a purchase.
All such transactions will also be logged by the local police authorities. The court will also provide compensation -- of at least 300,000 rupees (about $5030) each -- to acid attack victims, the overwhelming majority of them young women who have been assaulted and horribly disfigured for life by men for various reasons, including jealousy or a punishment for rejecting sexual advances.
The chemicals used to make acid are typically cheap and easily available. According to the Guardian, acid can be purchased in general stores for as little as $0.76 per liter. The court’s ruling also dictated that culprits who commit such attacks will receive no bail upon arrest and, upon conviction, would receive a minimum of 10 years in jail up to a life sentence. The new measures should be enforced within the next three months, the court indicated. Bangladesh has already passed similar legislation to limit acid sales, leading to a reduction in acid attacks. In that country, a perpetrator could conceivably receive a death sentence.
However, Albeena Shakil, a women's rights activist and professor at Delhi University, said the proposed legislation by the Indian court doesn’t go far enough. "There should have been a [total] ban on the retail sale of acids,” she told the Guardian. “There is a basic reluctance to come out with an effective legislation, and this looks like a rush job. There is no clear indication on the rehabilitation or the compensation process of the victims ... and medical care and the legal process is frightfully expensive."
According to BBC, about 1,000 acid attacks are reported in India annually, although, as with rapes, the actual number is likely far higher. In the past six months, 92 acid attacks were reported in New Delhi alone, according to the city's Women in Distress helpline. Such crimes are also widespread in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Guardian newspaper told the tale of a young Indian woman named Laxmi, who works with a campaign group called Stop Acid Attacks, a New Delhi organization that helps survivors. Eight years ago, when she was only 14, two men poured acid on her face and body at a bus station in New Delhi after she rejected a marriage proposal from one of them. Disfigured for life, she has spent much of her life since in hospitals and police stations. She has already undergone seven reconstructive surgical operations at a cost of some $45,650 (a substantial figure, considering that she only earns $180 per month and is the sole breadwinner in her family).
"Before the attack, I was like any other normal school-going kid,” she said. “I was keen on music and was preparing to try my luck in [television program] 'Indian Idol.' But the attack upset all plans. For months, I could not come to terms with the incident. But then you can't sit back and blame your fate. So I decided to fight." She added: "You know what we need desperately? A counselor who can help us come to terms with the situation and give us the confidence to face the world. It's not easy to live with a disfigured face."
Another survivor is a woman named Haseena Hussain, who was attacked with acid in the summer of 1999 when her former employer was angered by her rejection of a marriage proposal. “I felt helpless,” Haseena said, according to the DNA news agency. “People don’t know what to do when they see you standing there screaming in pain. They are afraid to help in situations that might involve the police.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.