‘Worse than murder’: Why are acid attacks still common in India after 2013 ban?
- The Delhi Commission for Women has found that acid remains freely available despite the Supreme Court’s 2013 ban on over-the-counter sales
- Activists have attributed the continued sale of acid to poor enforcement of laws and a lack of public awareness
A whole litre of acid, which could maim and disfigure someone in an acid attack, remains widely available and affordable across almost every grocery store in the Indian capital of New Delhi even after India’s Supreme Court banned over-the-counter acid sales in 2013.
For less than one Indian rupee (US$0.012), shoppers in Delhi can buy a litre of acid with no questions asked.
After India banned over-the-counter sales of acid to the public in 2013 to prevent attacks, only those with a licence could buy the substance. But through surprise visits, the Delhi Commission for Women has found that acid remains freely sold as ever.
“Acid continues to be freely sold in the capital. It is unfortunate that the districts are not checking the unregulated sale of acid properly,” Swati Maliwal, head of the commission, told The Times of India.
There are 250-300 acid attacks in India every year but the actual figure is likely higher as some incidents go unreported. India’s Supreme Court has called acid attacks “worse than murder” because of the minimal likelihood of victims getting their lives back on track after such devastating harm.
India made acid attacks a specific criminal offence in 2013, and the Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that victims should receive free medical treatment and minimum compensation of 300,000 rupees (US$4,500).
In separate incidents last Saturday, two women in Jaipur had acid thrown on them by men on scooters. On Tuesday, three youths threw acid at a young woman at a festival with her mother in Bhopal. She suffered severe burns to her face.
The Delhi Commission for Women this week issued a notice ordering punitive action to be taken against local officials for not enforcing the sale ban. Officials have to check whether acid is being sold and to fine any seller 50,000 rupees (US$606).
Studies by the commission showed that two out of New Delhi’s 11 districts have not conducted any inspections since 2017 and five districts have not imposed a single fine.
The paltry 36,000 rupees (US$438) collected in fines across India’s estimated 13 million family-run stores so far is an example of the near-total failure of the ban. Money from fines typically went towards the multiple, painful and costly operations that victims invariably need.
Laxmi Agarwal, 32, who now campaigns against sale of acid after she suffered an acid attack in Delhi in 1990, was unsurprised at the commission’s findings. Most of the shopkeepers she has spoken to do not even know of the law.
“If they do, they say the acid isn’t dangerous, it’s diluted to which I say, then please take a sip and tell me how it feels. They stock it because people use it for cleaning the toilets even though it is hazardous to keep it at home even for that purpose,” she told The Times of India.
Ashish Verma, a shopkeeper in New Friends Colony in south Delhi, said that although he does not keep acid, many customers often ask for it.
“For most Indians, buying something like Harpic is too expensive so they use acid to clean toilets or floors because it’s cheap and effective,” he said.
Alok Dixit, founder of Stop Acid Attacks, is also unsurprised at the latest data. He has witnessed acid openly sold over the counter but he welcomes the commission’s findings because they quantify the gravity of the situation.
“It’s not just the capital. It’s the same throughout India. There is simply no public awareness and without public awareness, the Supreme Court can pass laws but they are no use. And so, acid attacks continue,” said Dixit.