Acid-attack laws in India are threadbare in theory, woefully inadequate in practice
Activists and lawyers are all of the opinion that the root cause of the problem is the unregulated availability of acid that is still sold over-the-counter
India is a country where the government is 'of the people, by the people and for the people'. But a section of the country's population will beg to disagree with the third part. This section comprises acid-attack survivors whose lives, instead of being made easier by the laws of the land have only been made harder.
Take, for instance, the case of Monica Mondal. The 30-year-old resident of Budge Budge — a municipality in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal — was attacked by her neighbour in 2016 as she was the sole witness to an attempted theft in her house by the same person. The accused had sprayed her with a toxic chemical before attempting to steal the pregnant Mondal's jewellery — who was visiting her home for a baby shower. Having inhaled the chemical, Mondal lost her newborn only three days after giving birth and was then attacked by the same neighbour, who threw acid on her while she was sitting outside her house.
"My family immediately filed a case but the police wrote in the report that since the acid fell on my back, the attack was on a 'non-vulnerable area' of my body. As a result, the accused is now out on bail and still continues to threaten me," said Mondal, who is still undergoing treatment and cannot sit or stand for more than a few minutes due to her injuries.
Sayani Sengupta, legal consultant, Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI), said, "Despite the amendment in 2013 that introduced acid attack as a separate offence under the IPC for the first time, the existing loopholes managed to procure bail for the accused. Who decides which is a 'non-vulnerable' part of the body? The law does not specify anything. Imagine Monica's trauma when her attacker still continues to live next-door. Acid-attacks should be a non-bailable offence."
According to Mondal, her attacker, standing on the same balcony from which he threw acid on her, threatened her as recently as in January to withdraw the case against him.
After a writ petition was filed at the Supreme Court by a non-profit called Parvirtan Kendra, the apex court had ruled in 2015 that acid-attack victims should be included in the list of disabilities so that they can claim jobs under the disability quota. Subsequently, the Rajya Sabha passed a Bill in December 2016 to allow acid-attack victims to avail benefits under the same and also increased the quota of jobs reserved for them from three percent to five percent.
But Moyna Pramanik, 33, is not hoping for much. Pramanik was attacked with acid in 2001 by her husband when she was merely 16 years old. A resident of Murshidabad, Pramanik was attacked because she had given birth to a baby girl. Her husband then wrapped her in a silk saree, doused her with kerosene and set her ablaze so that it could look like a suicide.
Pramanik survived only to be denied her due — the police refused to consider the case as an acid attack and merely treated it as an attempted suicide.
"What was even more tragic was when Moyna's daughter killed herself when she learnt about the cause of her mother's attack. Moyna now ekes out a living by working as a cook for mid-day meals in schools. She did not get any compensation and her husband was never arrested. She spent all her money on treatment and got no help from the government," Sengupta said. After the Calcutta High Court ordered the setting-up of a medical board for the first time on 27 December, 2016 to award disability certificates, ASFI is now planning to refer Pramanik's case to them so that she gets the aid she deserves after so many years.
However, activists and lawyers are all of the opinion that the root cause of the problem is the unregulated availability of acid that is still sold over-the-counter.
Dibyaloke Rai Chaudhuri, coordinator, ASFI, said, "As per the 2013 ruling, there should be a nodal officer who monitors the sale of corrosive substances. But that never happens." According to activists, at least five or six cases of acid-attack have already taken place this year after acid was procured from gold shops or goldsmiths. On 6 January, a 14-year-old daughter of a goldsmith in Jalpaiguri took a container of acid from her father's box of tools and splashed it on her tenant as the latter refused to giver her her cellphone to play with.
"Such cases can be handled by sensitisation. This is another aspect that the law absolutely ignores. We do what we can but the government should also take some initiative," Rai Chaudhuri added.
But perhaps the biggest issue with the law today is financial aid for acid-attack survivors. "Acid-attack survivors have to undergo treatment for years. After their immediate treatment, they need a number of plastic surgeries that sometimes go on for years. Some also need more treatment, depending on the extent of their burns," Sengupta said.
According to the Supreme Court guidelines issued in 2013, an acid-attack victim should get compensation of Rs 3 lakh. But the guidelines and the subsequent amendment did not specify a time period for the disbursal of the amount. "Only around one in every 50 cases receives the compensation without any hassle. Most cases go on for years. In the meantime, the victims exhaust their resources and often stop their treatments before they should," Sengupta explained.
But in some instances, the case ends even before going to court.
Piali Datta, 25, was an unintended acid-attack victim. In 2005, her tenant attacked his wife who was seated next to Datta. The wife later succumbed to her injuries, while Datta suffered burns to her face and hands.
"My family borrowed money from people to get me treated and soon that got over and we needed more. So we borrowed money and now we are in debt," Datta said. She lived in a mud house in the small town of Shyamnagar and her copy of the FIR was washed away when her house was flooded in the rains of 2008. Since then, she has made repeated trips to the local police station for another copy, but has been refused.
"We are poor people. They (the police) don't pay any heed to us. My mother and I have asked for a copy so many times but they said they can't find it either. So now I have lost hope for any compensation," Datta said.
On 2 February, the government announced that acid-attack victims will get an additional Rs 1 lakh from the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund within five working days, but that too depends on multiple clearances from different government departments at a variety of levels.
However, Datta is now working at a small bookstore owned by ASFI as she is determined to finish her education and support her family.
"My hands were burnt so there is some restriction in movement, but I will finish my education and help my family to clear the debts. The government should help us and not make our lives more difficult. My mother borrowed money assuming that sooner or later, we would get the compensation. But now that the government and the police have let us down, I will fight to the best of my ability to clear the debts," a resolute Datta said.
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