What do I live for?” asks 14-year old Tuba Tabassum. It’s a muffled utterance but the rage in her voice is palpable. Six months after acid devoured much of her face, every breath is an effort in vengeance. A man threw acid on her face after she rejected his advances. She still vividly remembers the morning she was attacked on her way to school, in her native village in Bihar. Her refusal left her face burning, as the acid ripped through her flesh, eating away her nose and welding her lips together. It dissolved her facial bones, blinding her partially. Six months after the attack, Tabassum now has trouble breathing and swallowing solid food. Once a bright class IX student, the promise of a future now eludes her.
Although the accused and his accomplices are behind bars, it is day-to-day survival that is wearing out Tabassum and her family. Due to lack of medical facilities in her village, Tabassum and her father were forced to move to New Delhi, where they have been running pillar-to-post, in an attempt to finance her treatment that costs Rs 30 lakh. Her father now works as a contract labourer in the city, earning Rs 5000- 6000 a month, depending on the amount of work he manages to complete. “Although I don’t have the financial capacity to survive in this city or have my daughter treated, I am here because right now, her treatment is the priority,” he says.
According to a study conducted by Cornell Law School in 2002, India, Bangladesh and Cambodia have the highest incidence of acid attacks in the world.
In 2009, the 226th Law Commission report suggested an increasing trend in acid related violence across India. At present, statistics available on acid attacks in India are scattered and inaccurate. It wasn’t until this year that acid attacks were recognised as a specific criminal offence.
According to Bengaluru-based NGO Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women 53 cases were reported in 2006. “The numbers that have been reported in the media and cited by studies are skewed and hence fail to draw attention to the gravity of the situation. But what should prompt the State to take action beyond recognising acid attacks as a specific offence in the absence of accurate statistics is the amount of physical, psychological and economical reconstruction that is required for an acid attack victim to survive,” says Madhu Mehra, a Delhi-based lawyer and executive director of Partners in Law and Development, a legal resource group.
Another such survivor is Anu Mukherjee, 30. Orphaned at the age of nine, she went on to become a dancer at a prominent hotel in Delhi, managing to build a life for herself and her brother, who was still in school then. A colleague threw acid on her face because of competition at her workplace. She sustained severe burn injuries that disfigured her face and blinded her. Following a lengthy trial, Anu received compensation from the guilty but it did not cover her medical costs, nor did it compensate for the loss of livelihood. For the past 9 years, Anu has been confined to her house in a New Delhi slum and depends on her brother for survival.
Even in the case of Sonali Mukherjee, who was attacked in 2003, and received much media attention, a compensation of Rs 50,000 came in from the government six years after the gruesome attack. Nine years and 26 surgeries later, which cost close to Rs 30 lakh, she still has another 5-6 surgeries lined up this year.
Even as the recent amendments to the anti-rape Bill introduces acid attacks as a separate offence with a minimum punishment of 10 years, extendable to life imprisonment and increases the amount of government compensation to Rs 10 lakh, the State needs to devise a plan for medical treatment, counseling and rehabilitation of acid attack victims.
The 2009 Law Commission report on acid attacks had proposed the setting up of a Criminal Injuries Compensation and Rehabilitation Board to issue directions to appropriate authorities that would ensure proper medical, psychological and legal assistance to the victims and issue directions for their rehabilitation in consultation with the Centre and the states. The commission’s report was followed by a National Commission for Women (NCW) scheme for relief and rehabilitation of acid attacks victims. The NCW also proposed constituting a Criminal Injuries Compensation and Rehabilitation Board. Four years later, the board is yet to be formed, confirms NCW chairperson Mamta Sharma.
Although there is a scheme for compensation of victims under section 357 of the Criminal Procedure Code, it is only disbursed at the end of trial. “Under the existing government rules, the procedure for obtaining compensation is so onerous that by the time the victim gets the money, it is too little and too late,” says Kirti Singh, former member of the Law Commission. Taking this into account, the Law Commission had recommended that the Criminal Injuries Compensation and Rehabilitation Board should provide compensation immediately without procedural complications.
“The government should focus on making amendments and should stop taking suggestions made by welfare bodies so lightly. In most cases, amendments take too long and when they are made, they are inadequate, half hearted and fail to do substantial justice to victims,” she says.
So far the Goa and West Bengal governments have cleared compensation packages for acid-attack victims, yet the budgetary allocations of upto Rs 10 lakh and Rs 2 lakh per victim respectively are petty compared to the medical costs incured by the victims. Other states are yet to follow suit.
In the absence of a legislation that guarantees immediate compensation, most victims and their families are left to fend for themselves. “The definition of justice needs to go beyond the narrow prism of penalty. Justice for acid attack victims should be reparative and compensative,” says Rebecca John, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court. She adds that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board for victims of violence, with acid attack victims as the priority, should have been set up with specific budgetary allocations from the Centre.
In Bangladesh, when the instance of acid attacks peaked in 2002, laws that controlled the sale of acid were put in place. Since then, the incidence of acid attacks has gone down by 15-20 percent. The Supreme Court of India has directed all states to devise a policy on the regulation of sale of acid due to its easy availability. So far, only the Tamil Nadu government has introduced a bill to regulate the sale of acid.