By Nithin Sridhar
The Supreme Court on Wednesday took to task four state governments for not complying with its directives regarding the treatment and rehabilitation of acid-attack victims. The SC issued show-cause notices to Karnataka, Kerala, Mizoram, and Madhya Pradesh after they failed to file responses to the SC directives.
The bench was hearing a PIL filed by an NGO Parivartan Kendra regarding the rehabilitation of the victims of acid-attack.
In its directives, the SC had ordered private hospitals throughout the country to provide free treatment, including both medicine and expensive reconstruction surgeries, to the acid-attack victims.
The state governments had been asked to take up the matter with the private hospitals in their states and ensure proper treatment to the victims.
Additionally, the hospitals were directed to provide certificates to the victims after admitting them which identified them as victims of acid-attack. The certificate would help them get free treatment in future.
The fact that four prominent states in India did not even file a response to the directive of the SC raises serious questions about their commitment to social issues. The issue of acid-attack is a serious menace affecting society, especially women.
Just as rape, sexual assault, or dowry incidents harass women physically and mentally, acid-attacks also cause a similar trauma. Acid bottles are freely available in the market despite the ban on over-the-counter sale without maintaining proper records about the purchaser.
Avjit Kumar, the Assistant Director of Acid Survivors Foundation of India (ASFI) spoke to NewsGram (NG) on the issue and said that acids are still freely available but are re-branded as 'cleaning agents' in the market.
He gave the example of Kolkata wherein the previously available 'muriatic acid' is now being sold as 'toilet cleaner'. He added that when his organization got the toiler-cleaner samples tested, results showed that they were identical to the muriatic acid in both composition and concentration.
Therefore, it is clear that the restrictions on the sale of acids have not been implemented.
A majority of the cases of acid-attack involve failed love affairs or rejected sexual advances. For example, Laxmi, who went on to become the face of acid-attack victims and whose case impelled the Supreme Court to put restrictions on the sale of acids, was a minor when she was disfigured using acid in 2005. A 32-year-old man threw acid on the 16-year old Laxmi as she had rejected his advances.
A similar case is that of Chanchal, an 18-year-old girl who was disfigured by four people for refusing their sexual advances towards her. She was also denied proper treatment at the hospital because she was a Dalit. The NGO Parivartan Kendra had filed its PIL following this incident.
When asked about the major reasons behind acid-attacks, Avjit Kumar shared with NG the data compiled by ASFI from 2010 to 2014. According to the report, 36% of the acid-attacks were due to rejection of marriage proposals, love, or sexual advances by the girl; 13% were due to marital discord; 11% due to land, business, or professional dispute; 5% due to family dispute; 5% for dowry demands; 5% for satisfying sadistic pleasures; 1% due to professional jealousy; and the rest due to miscellaneous reasons.
However, women are not the only victims of acid-attacks. Men have been burnt as well. Ashish Shukla, Director of Chhanv Foundation (which is working to rehabilitate acid-attack victims) while speaking to NG opined that there is no gender bias in the issue. Even though the number of women victims is much more, there are many men in the victim pool. He added that in his estimation, as much as 10% of the acid-attack victims are men.
Regarding the extent of this menace, Acid Survivors Trust International has estimated that there are 1500 attacks taking place annually world-wide. ASFI estimates that at least 100-500 attacks take place every year in India.
According to the provisional statistics for the year 2014 released by National Crime Research Bureau, a total of 310 cases of acid-attack were reported. The number of attacks during the year 2011, 2012, and 2013 were 83, 85, and 66 respectively. There were 57 attacks in 2010. Therefore, according to government data, a total of 601 cases have been reported between 2010 and 2014.
But, the real figures may have been much higher. According to data compiled by ASFI, the acid-attack incidents for the year 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 were 80, 106, 106, and 122 respectively. The year 2014 recorded 104 cases till the middle of July. Therefore, a total of 518 cases were recorded by ASFI from 2010 till mid-July, 2014 itself.
The contrast becomes clear when data from 2010 to 2013 alone is compared. Against the 291 cases recorded in government data, ASFI recorded 414 cases. Thus, the extent of the acid-attack menace is much more than what appears on papers.
Acid-attack victims not only undergo physical pain, but also have to cope with emotional trauma, social apathy, and financial burden. The treatment and reconstruction surgeries are very costly and the compensation that one gets from the government is nowhere enough to handle the expenses. Hence, the victims, as well as their families are forced to face innumerable hardships.
Ashish Shukla pointed out that the acid-attack victims not only face challenges regarding medical treatment and delayed compensation from the government but also encounter difficulties in empowering themselves and joining the mainstream. He opined that the biggest hurdle the victims faced is the attitude of the society that isolates them.
He said that, instead of sympathizing with the victims, the society should try its best to create a normal atmosphere around them so that they could join the mainstream and lead their lives peacefully.
Avjit Kumar points out that, the menace of acid-attacks could be effectively dealt with by instituting the fast track courts and punishing the guilty severely. Also, the ban on the sale of concentrated acids to common people must be properly implemented. Only a diluted acid that causes no harm to humans should be for sale.
But, all is not lost for the acid-attack victims. Just as every cloud has a silver lining, the victims are slowly coping with their lives and moving ahead towards success.
Laxmi has become one of the most renowned campaigners for the cause and has helped innumerable victims of acid-attack. She even hosted a television show in 2014. Sonali Mukherjee, another victim had suffered 70% burns finally found her true love and married him in April. Haseena Hussain who lost her eyesight in the attack on her is now working as a stenographer and is the sole bread-earner of the family.
Another success story is that of 'Sheroes Hangout' in Agra. The café, located in Taj Mahal, is India's first café run by acid-attack victims. The initiative was started by the Chhanv foundation as part of its efforts to empower the victims.
Ashish Shukla of Chhanv foundation who is closely associated with 'Sheroes Hangout' told NG that the café has four portions: a boutique, a book library, a handicraft section, and a coffee café. He further added that they have plans to start similar initiatives in other cities like Kanpur and Lucknow.
It is the duty of the society and the government to support the victims of acid-attack and empower them. They must be filled with self-confidence and not treated with sympathy or apathy. The state governments should understand the seriousness of the acid-attack issue and take measures to prevent such attacks in the future. Etiquette rehabilitation should also be provided to the victims.