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STOP THE ACID RAIN

The papers were full of it, but 27-year-old Sonali Mukherjee found little comfort in the reports on a new law. Mukherjee, who is from Dhanbad, fears she has nothing to look forward to. In 2003, three men threw acid on her because she rebuffed their advances. Her face was disfigured and she lost her eyesight. She is still seeking justice, while the three men, who spent three years in jail, are out on bail.

“I have lost all hope. There is no justice for me,” Mukherjee, who has undergone 22 facial surgeries so far, says.

Late last week, the news that the Cabinet had passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2012, with special provisions for acid victims, was hailed in some quarters. Many, however, believe that the amendments are just not enough.

For the first time, acid attacks have been included under a standalone provision in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). It’s been proposed that two sections — 326A (hurt by acid attack) and 326B (attempt to throw or administer acid) — be added to the IPC Section 326. This is a non-bailable offence.

The proposed law, which has to be now passed by Parliament, states that the attacker could get a jail term of 10 years to life for causing hurt by acid. He or she could be sent to jail for up to seven years for attempting to do so.

So far, there was no separate law to deal with acid attacks. Cases were registered under Sections 320 (causing emasculation and disfigurement), 322 and 325 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt) and 326 (causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means). Under these sections, the accused could be sent to jail for a period of one year to 10 years.

But lawyers say that the proposed law is not enough.

“It’s all hogwash,” says advocate Meenakshi Lekhi. “The government must invoke a stringent law on the lines of the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, where no bail is granted to the accused if there’s a prima facie case. Unless a stricter law is in place, acid attackers will roam free and they can harm the victim again.”

In Mukherjee’s case, the threat is real. “The men have said they’ll kill me if I don’t withdraw the case against them. The state should take up the responsibility to protect me from them,” says Mukherjee, who is now in Delhi to gather support for her cause from the government, activists and lawyers.

Activists point out that the proposed law has no provisions for the protection of victims. “The law should put the onus on the government to give protection to the victim,” says Sushma Varma, founder member of the Bangalore-based Campaign and Struggle against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAW).

The new law has a provision for monetary compensation for acid victims. It says that the victim would receive Rs 10 lakh as compensation from the accused.

“The facial surgery of a victim costs around Rs 15 lakh. High monetary compensation should be provided by the law,” says advocate Veena Rai of Bangalore’s Human Rights Law Network, a collective of lawyers.

But lawyers fear that passing the buck to the accused may leave the victim without any support. “In many cases, the accused belong to poor families. They will not be able to pay the compensation. There should be an additional clause in the law making the State take up the responsibility of compensating the victim if the accused fails to do so,” Varma stresses. “The victim must also get financial help as soon as possible so that a surgery can be done immediately.”

Some states such as Karnataka have adopted a mechanism to pay the victim from state funds. While hearing the case of a 19-year-old girl called Haseena, who had acid thrown at her in 2006, the Karnataka High Court ordered that the state pay Rs 2 lakh as compensation to the victim.

Recently, the Delhi government too announced that it would pay compensation of up to Rs 3 lakh to a victim in case there is disfigurement of the face.

But there is no such law in Mukherjee’s home state, Jharkhand. “My father had to sell off his land to get my treatment done. We didn’t receive anything from the government,” Mukherjee says.

Jharkhand needs to tackle the issue, for acid attack cases in the state are not rare. “We come across at least five such cases a year in our hospital,” says Dr Anant Sinha, chief executive officer of Ranchi’s Devkamal hospital. Dr Sinha has offered to operate on Mukherjee free of cost.

There are no official figures on acid attacks in India. But a 2011 study by the Avon Global Centre for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School in New York states that 153 cases of acid attacks were reported in India from January 2002 to October 2010. In Karnataka, CSAAW says around 75 cases have been reported since 1999.

Activists and lawyers also believe that a strict law needs to be in place to regulate the procurement and sale of acid.

A draft bill — Prevention of Offences (by Acids) Act 2008 — proposed by the National Commission for Women (NCW) suggested that a national acid attack victim’s assistance board be set up to recommend to the government strategies for regulating and controlling the production, hoarding, import, sale and distribution of acids.

In 2006, lawyer Aparna Bhat filed a PIL in the Supreme Court demanding a separate law for acid attack victims and a ban on over-the-counter sales of acid. “At present, acid is readily available at any hardware shop. Unless there is a mechanism to stop the sale of acid at shops, such attacks cannot be checked,” Bhat feels.

Former NCW chairperson Girija Vyas believes the government should levy a fee or tax on the sale of acids by manufacturers. “A corpus fund should be set up with this money and utilised for giving compensation to the victim on an immediate basis,” Vyas says.

Lawyers feel the government should have a proper mechanism for the rehabilitation of victims. “Rehabilitation should include provisions for education, job, housing and other welfare measures,” suggests Rai.

For Mukherjee, that would mean the beginning of a new life.