In 2005, sixteen year-old Laxmi’s life came to a standstill. She became a victim of an acid attack in New Delhi’s upscale Khan Market area. A 32-year-old man threw acid on her face after she rejected his advances.
Sold as household cleaning agent for as little as Rs 10-50 a litre, highly concentrated acid has become the weapon of choice for jilted lovers across India. While there are no official statistics on the number of such attacks, it is estimated that there are as many as 1,000 acid attacks a year in the country.
On 18 July, the Supreme Court, acting on a writ petition filed by Laxmi, passed an interim order regulating the sale of acid in the open market.
While the court’s order has come as a relief to activists and victims who have long called for curbing sale of acid in open markets, such sales are difficult to regulate.
Acid is used mostly for cleaning toilets and ceramic fixtures in Indian homes. Its extensive use for cleaning purposes is the primary reason for its easy availability in the open market.
Most industries, both in the organised and unorganised sector, use acid extensively — it is used to process leather in the tanning industry; sanitation workers use it to unclog drains and pipes; construction workers to clean tiles; and the steel industry for pickling of steel.
However, the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers is clueless on statistics of production and sale of acid in India. The Indian Chemical Council (ICC), the apex body representing the Indian chemical industry, says, “Acid is manufactured in scattered locations in India and that is why we don’t have a compilation of its production details available readily.”
The apex court’s latest ruling prohibits selling acid without licence and makes it mandatory for retailers to maintain a record of buyers. Buyers will have to produce identification and address proofs and should be above the age of 18. Moreover, dealers will also have to submit details of sale to the local police within three days of the transaction.
“The Centre had no policy framework to regulate the sale of acid. The present policy has been put forth in a week’s time,” says Alok Dixit of Stop Acid Attacks, a New Delhi-based NGO that helps survivors of acid attacks.
The government’s response to the SC order is, at best, dodgy. “Our ministry was to provide consultation to the Ministry of Home Affairs,” says AV Prasad, joint secretary of the chemicals and fertilisers ministry. “We have given our recommendations.”
The ICC has welcomed the SC ruling. “From the industry’s point of view, we believe that licensing the sale of acid and keeping track of customers will not burden the shopkeeper,” reads the official statement. “Like banks follow a know-your-customer (KYC) policy, we believe acid retailers should too.”
In its recommendations to the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers, the ICC also said that the supply of acid from unorganised and unidentified sellers should be curbed. Wholesale dealers, however, foresee the emergence of a strong black market.
“Making retailers responsible for stocks and sales is a positive move but law enforcement agencies must keep an eye on the possibility of black marketing,” says a wholesaler from Tilak Nagar market, a hub for chemical wholesalers in Delhi.
A general-store owner in Delhi says he’d rather not sell acid than get a licence — “Licence ka chakkar matlab logon ko paisa khilao. Isse acha tezaab beche hi na hum! (Licences mean paying bribes. I’d rather not sell acid.)”
Dixit believes that a ban on the sale of acid in the retail market is the only solution to stop acid attacks. “Acid violence is a crime of vengeance. The change in the law will be effective only when implemented properly. There is also a need to build awareness among people who sell acid,” says Kirti Singh, former member of the Law Commission. For now, the states and Union territories that are yet to frame a policy on the regulation of the sale of acid, have three months to do so.