India: New spate of acid attacks on women foreshadows move to specify minimum 7 year prison sentence
Magazine | July 20, 2009
Anuradha lost her left eye in a 1997 attack
With acid attacks on the rise again, Andhra mulls stringent laws
- July 2: Man throws acid on his wife and two-year-old daughter
- June 27: Elderly woman attacked by a close relative over a property dispute at Piduguralla
- June 24: HIV patient throws acid on wife for refusing to sleep with him in Nizampeth
- June 17: A man hurls acid at a neighbour for spurning his sexual overtures
- June 17: An autorickshaw driver attacks his paramour over a quarrel
O n December 13, 2008, an acid attack on two female engineering students in Warangal sent shockwaves across the state. One of the students finally died of acid burns in a Hyderabad hospital on December 30. Her friend, T. Praneetha, survived but is still to get over the shock. The case was compounded by a police goof-up in the beginning, and later, as if to make up for it, the three accused young men were gunned down in an 'encounter' outside town within hours of being arrested. The vigilante style killing even made the resident top cop a hero for a while.
Women protest the Warangal acid attack
Now, six months after Warangal, a spate of acid attacks in Guntur district has once again brought the issue on to the front pages. The district has seen five attacks in the last fortnight. The Andhra Pradesh government is now considering a legislation on the lines of a draft bill proposed by the Centre on acid attackers. "We are sending recommendations to the Union government on the proposed draft bill," state home minister Sabitha Reddy told Outlook. The bill proposes to amend Section 326 of the IPC with inclusion of a sub-clause which will ensure a minimum punishment of seven years. The present Section 326, which deals with causing grievous injury, lacks the provision and does not specify a minimum punishment.
Another suggestion pertains to the trial of the guilty. The state wants the cases to be tried in a sessions court (rather than before a metropolitan magistrate) and with inclusion of a clause under the Indian Evidence Act, so that the burden of proving innocence is on the accused. The home minister says that "along with speedy trial, the state has also suggested that victims of acid attacks be paid compensation by the accused for treatment. As it is, the costs incurred in treating acid burns is too high...." She also wants the "perpetrators", mostly youth or students, to be immediately rusticated from their respective institutions for not less than three years.
The victims themselves would like to have their side heard too. Anuradha was a BSc Agriculture student in 1997 when a male student threw acid on her. She lost her left eye in the attack and has since undergone 20 surgeries. She says the victim's statement should be taken into account while punishing the guilty as attacks happen mainly in secluded places and witnesses are hard to come by. Even if it takes place in public, people rarely come forward to testify.
"There should be a separate law for acid attack cases...delinked from any other Act," says Anuradha, who now works as a biotechnologist. She points out that it's not the victim alone who suffers, but the entire family. On the treatment expenses front, Anuradha appreciated the present government's efforts in helping victims financially.
Sumitra, a social worker with NGO Ankuram, says "there's no dearth of effective laws, but there's no proper implementation". She's hoping the proposed legislation will close the loopholes and help control crimes against women."Domestic violence, gangrapes, trafficking of women and children, acid attacks, sexual harassment at the workplace, dowry harassment and deaths, child abuse and sexual exploitation...they are becoming the order of the day, not only in Andhra, but elsewhere," she says.
Ram Mohan, convenor of HELP, an NGO in Guntur district, goes a bit further. He wants the sale and purchase of acid in the state to be regulated. "Despite the crimes and the chemical's obvious harmful effects, acid is sold freely over the counter even in rural areas," he says. As things stand, in Guntur, at least, some regulation may not be a bad idea.