Indian government finally acts against acid attacks

NEW DELHI, India — The Indian government finally moved to restrict the sales of acid on Tuesday, belatedly acting to stop a vicious crime against women that is as common as it is heinous.

After years of urging by the Supreme Court, the central government said this week that it will begin treating acid as a poison and implement century-old mechanisms to limit sales of the potentially deadly chemical — which spurned lovers and angry families all too frequently splash on the faces of young women to permanently and horrifically disfigure them.

Under the draft rules, acid sellers must obtain from buyers proof of their identity, residential address, telephone number and the purpose for the purchase. Moreover, only highly diluted acids will be licensed for retail sales.

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Every year, the lives of hundreds of young Indian women are destroyed by jealous lovers or bigoted parents, their faces melted into gruesome masks, according to Dr. Subhas Chakraborty, executive director of the Acid Survivors Foundation of India

While the attacks rarely kill, the disfigurement is nearly always severe — particularly because few Indian hospitals are equipped to deal with acid burns. And many sufferers are blinded or incapacitated by the attacks, according to the UK-based Acid Survivors Trust International.

“People are rushed to government hospitals, but the burn units are very few. They get admitted and they get the treatment as far as possible,” Chakraborty told GlobalPost. “But people attack the face, and it injures the eyes, the mouth, and it takes specialized treatment that is very seldom available.”

Victims are left with severe physical, psychological and social scars, and in order to rebuild their lives they need years of medical treatment, social support, and legal advocacy. Even then, recovery is a misnomer for learning to endure.

But until earlier this year, India had no specific legal provisions to address the crime. And until Tuesday's government edict is implemented across the country's 31 states and territories, highly concentrated acid will remain as easy to buy as a packet of laundry detergent or a pint of milk — despite the fact that Bangladesh and even Pakistan demonstrated years ago how easily progress can be made.

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Bangladesh, for instance, recorded more than a thousand acid attacks a year prior to 2002, when it introduced the death penalty for perpetrators and restricted the sale of acids used in various industrial processes, Chakraborty said. Thanks to those measures and a committed civil society effort to combat the problem, in just 10 years the number of attacks dropped to 85 this year.

Pakistan, too, enacted a strong law to curb acid attacks in 2010, though as GlobalPost reported, it has been less successful.

So why has India been so tardy in taking action, and why is it finally moving now?

The slowness in following Bangladesh's example illustrates how deeply entrenched ideas about restricting and circumscribing women's sexual lives and other freedoms remain here. But the recent actions show just as clearly the sea change in attitudes — at least among civil society and the vocal middle class — that has occurred since the gruesome Delhi gang rape of December 16, 2012.

It was that horrible crime that prompted the revision of the penal code that, among many other measures to address violence against women, finally made acid attacks a distinct offense — which will make it far easier for activists to track incidents and raise awareness. And it was the continued media attention to crimes against women that has followed the incident which finally forced the government to crack down on acid sales.

Under the revised criminal laws passed earlier this year, the perpetrators of acid attacks will be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison, and the sentence can be extended to a life term in cases where the judge considers it merited. Attempted acid attacks are punishable with a prison term of five to seven years.

“After the gang rape case in Delhi, the situation has changed,” said Chakraborty. “Because of the active interference of the civil society and hue and cry of the media people, the government has been compelled to come out with new laws.”