By Kim Arora – Times of India
NEW DELHI: In a semi-residential part of west Delhi’s Ashok Nagar colony, purchasing acid is as easy as buying noodles. The storeowner just asks, “Gandhak ka ya namak ka?” (Sulphuric or hydrochloric). And out comes a refilled beer bottle topped with a thin plastic cap containing the lethal fluid.
Pasted over the label of the beer brand is another label that says, “Sulphuric Acid”. A part of the original label sticking out from under it says, “Strong”. Concentrated sulphuric acid can corrode marble and burn through metal. And as seen with the recent spate of ghastly acid throwing attacks in the country, it can burn through skin, reach the bones and melt them. It can disfigure, blind and even kill. The price is a laughable Rs 30 for 750 ml; cheaper than a 1.5 litre bottle of cola.
Such easy availability of acid has often been cited as one of the reasons for the recent spike in acid-throwing attacks across the country. Last Monday, the Punjab and Haryana High Court directed the Punjab government to formulate a policy to facilitate free treatment of acid attack survivors. Earlier this month, the government passed the Criminal Law Amendment Bill which recognizes acid attacks as a separate offence.
“The Supreme Court has reminded us of the need to curb sale of acid once already, and we still have no policies. It is very cheap, can be bought easily without suspicion, and is used so easily and frequently like a weapon. One can’t ban sale of acid, but it definitely needs to be restricted,” says Alok Dixit of activist collective Stop Acid Attacks.
Pragya Singh from Bangalore, an activist who is also an acid attack survivor reaffirms. “Just like you can’t buy certain medicines without prescription, there should be a restriction on the sale of acid. There needs to be a procedure in place where one would need certification or permission to justify use – for example in a laboratory,” she says.
Supreme Court lawyer Kamlesh Jain also feels acid should be treated at par with poisonous substances and its sale, accordingly regulated. As early as in 2006, advocate Aparna Bhat filed a PIL in court demanding a ban on over the counter sale of acid. Another Erode-based activist filed an appeal earlier this year to ask for the enforcement of the Explosives Act to contain over-the-counter sale of acid.
Recently, Vinodhini, a 23 year old from Chennai succumbed to injuries from an acid attack. Though there isn’t enough official data for India available, reports suggest that acid attacks are a gendered crime with women being the target, and the assaulters being jilted lovers.
In February, a Supreme Court bench directed the additional solicitor general to hold consultations with state chief secretaries and deliberate a legislation to curb acid sales. In April, the criminal law amendment bill was passed. It was silent on restricting over the counter sale of acid – something activists and lawyers too have appealed for. So far, the Tamil Nadu government has submitted an affidavit in court, stating its intent to control acid sale in the state.
Neighbouring countries like Bangladesh have been more proactive. In 2002, Bangladesh enacted a law to check acid sales, imposing licensing requirements on manufacturers, importers and distributors. The country saw 3,000 acid attacks in 1999 alone. According to a 2011 US report, by the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice, the incidence of such attacks in Bangladesh began to come down by 15 to 20% each year after the enactment of the 2002 law. The same study indicates that in India (with numbers gathered from media reports) the number of such attacks have risen from 4 in 2002 to 27 in 2010. The report also points out that the number is far less than the actual number of cases on ground.