Using Public Interest Litigation to Combat Acid Attacks in India

Vrinda Bhandari 11th August 2013

Laxmi was 15 years old when her 32 year old neighbour declared his love for her. He sent her repeated text messages and when she did not respond, approached her at a crowded bus station and threw acid on her face. Her face and arms were charred forever and her ears melted (see here and here). But she is not alone. Although there are no official figures on the number of acid attacks in India, estimates by activist groups range from three acid attacks every week to 1,000 a year. Most of these horrific attacks are carried out by jilted men, seeking revenge. They have easy access to acid, which was until recently, available for purchases in any general store. The Central Government, despite repeated assurances to the Supreme Court, had not regulated the sale of acid and was even criticized by the Court for not being “serious” about framing a policy to curb its sale. This is all set to change, following the court’s intervention pursuant to the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Laxmi in 2005. The PIL had highlighted the inadequacy of laws for the prosecution of accused in acid attacks and the absence of any victim compensation schemes.

Acid attacks raise three key issues: first, the effective regulation of the retail sale of acid across States. Secondly, the stipulation of measures for the proper treatment, after care and rehabilitation of the victims of acid attacks. Thirdly, the creation of uniform victim compensation schemes across States, given that under pre-existing norms, compensation varied between Rs. 25,000 (approximately £270) in Bihar and Rs. 200,000 (approximately £2150) in Rajasthan.

On the first issue, the regulation of retail sale of acids can only take place after the Central government consults with the States to classify corrosive acids like Hydrochloric Acid and Sulphuric Acid as ‘poisons’ under the Poisons Act, 1919. Although it has recently drafted model rules titled “The Poisons Possession and Sale Rules, 2013”, these have not been enacted by all States. This compelled the Indian Supreme Court to pass interim orders in Laxmi’s PIL last month, prohibiting over-the-counter sale of acids unless the seller declared all stocks of acid with the Sub-divisional Magistrate and maintains a log/register recording acid sales, the details and address of the buyer and the quantity of acid sold. Furthermore, the buyer has to produce a valid photo ID (to prove he is not a minor) and specify the purpose for procuring the acids. Violation of these rules results in a fine of Rs. 50,000 (£540) imposed on the seller.

This has been accompanied by a legislative amendment to the country’s penal code in 2013, inserting sections 326A and 326B which make acid attacks a non-bailable offence with a minimum ten year imprisonment term (extending to life) and a ‘just and reasonable’ fine payable by the accused to the victim to meet (usually) her medical expenses.

Thus for the first time, the Judiciary and the Legislature have come together to deal with acid attacks through a multi-pronged approach: stringently punishing the perpetrators and attempting to prevent the attacks by regulating access to acids. Along with this a compensation scheme has been established wherein the State shall pay Rs. 300,000 (approximately £3225) as compensation to the victim, with Rs. 100,000 being paid within 15 days of the incident and the balance within two months (although this has been criticized as being inadequate given expensive medical procedures required).

Whether these measures prove adequate depends on the efficacy of the deterrent and retributive measures. This will be contingent on, (as is most often the case in India), the effective implementation of the law; the proactive initiative taken by the government in educating police and law enforcement agencies about the rules; and the ability to provide effective redressal through the legal system. All eyes are now set on the Supreme Court’s next hearing on Laxmi’s PIL on 3rd December, 2013.

Vrinda Bhandari is currently reading for a Masters in Public Policy at the University of Oxford.

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