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The acerbic scar

 Abhishek Dey |  2015-01-04 22:25:24.0  |  New Delhi

The acerbic scar

She says, “I tried going to the school once last year. But people just looked at me like they were horror-struck, some of them even spitted on the ground for no reasons as if they had encountered the van carrying the filth of the village. I was surprised, I had partially covered my face and the skin on the uncovered part had started to heal by then making me look quite human.”

Ritu recalled, “It was around 4.30 in the evening on May 26, 2012 when life changed. I had just come back from school, washed myself, had my lunch and was heading towards the volleyball court hardly half-kilometre away from home. At the junction, immediately outside our lane, there was a jaagran and I had to pass through that. In that crowd, I saw my 39-year-old unmarried cousin Ram Niwas, with other men whom I didn’t recognise. He came close, twisted the cap of a glass bottle and the liquid it contained was flung onto my face.”


Ritu was then admitted to the district hospital with 90 per cent burn injuries on her face and 25 per cent burn on her neck and shoulder. The corrosive also took away her left eye. She was discharged from the hospital after two months with a series of surgeries pending which could only be taken up at hospitals in the big cities.

“I can go back to school again assuming that I have nothing to do with the other students, no matter how they react. But will the teacher teach me without the slightest hesitation,” Ritu asks.

Ram Niwas was arrested within 12 hours of the incident along with his 17 alleged associates, of which 10 were acquitted and three were later released on bail.

“It has been observed that survivors like us never want to meet the perpetrator. But I want to ask my cousin why he did that to me. I haven’t got any answer to that till date. It is even worse when people blame me behind my back for all that has happened. I covered my face for two years. It was on May 26, 2014 that I decided to stop doing that,” Ritu adds.

Geeta Rani Rajput owns and manages a tea stall on the Meerut bypass road. On May 7, 2000, a person known to her, who often visited the tea shop, flung acid on her. “He had come with a chyawanprash container, which contained the acid in it. Three days before the incident, he had come to the shop and asked me to marry him,” says Geeta. She further says that she was already married then and was raising a daughter. The man couldn’t take the rejection and warned her of dire consequences.

“I was scared but I did not expect this to happen. He is still at large and the police have hardly done anything to nab him,” Geeta adds. She was admitted in the hospital with 80 percent burn injuries on one side of her face and her left arm. Her entire treatment was funded by money donated by the villagers from her mother’s home, with whom she lived after her in-laws refused to accept her.

After a recent surgery, Geeta has regained vision in her left eye which was severely damaged by the corrosive 14 years ago.

When any corrosive substance comes in contact with the eyes, the first thing one should do is wash it off as soon as possible. In the past, we have come across acid attack survivors who had done this, which saved their eyes from the worse, says Dr Tushar Aggarwal, Assistant Professor in the department of Ophthalmology at the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS).

He adds that many a times the eyelid is entirely damaged by the corrosive and the victim’s eye gets exposed to the light round-the-clock leading to permanent damage of the cornea. In such cases the eyelid has to be fixed immediately with a plastic surgery.

An acid attack survivor may have to go around eight rounds of eye surgeries depending upon the severity of the damage (graded conventionally on a scale between I and IV). The first few surgeries deal with grafting of an amniotic membrane, which is like a biological dressing. It protects the remaining stem cells, which lose their inherent capacity to regenerate when damaged by any chemical. The surgeries that may follow include stem cell transplantation, corneal transplantation and in extreme cases Keratoprosthesis – replacing of a diseased cornea with an artificial cornea.

The outcomes of these surgeries are also very uncertain, Dr Aggarwal adds. He is the surgeon who operated the recent acid attack survivor, a 30-year-old doctor working at the ESI hospital in west Delhi.

According to senior police officials, the police can only investigate acid attack cases as and when they happen, unless there is a ban imposed on them. “The sources of procuring acids range from acid factories to neighbourhood hardware shops (selling acids as a toilet cleaning agent) and shops that deal with the repair of inverter/car batteries,” says a senior police official.

“There are shops in south Delhi’s Kotla Mubarakpur area, north west Delhi’s Ashok Vihar area and east Delhi’s New Ashok Nagar area, in which the vendors dilute all by themselves acids procured from factories for resale,” says a source.

In the recent Rajouri Garden acid attack case, the accused had carried the acid in an injection for more accuracy and reportedly procured it from a shop in Ashok Vihar, says a source in police department.

The acids mostly used in acid attack cases are sulphuric acid (used as toilet cleaner) followed by concentrated hydrochloric acid and nitric acid. The cost may range between Rs 20 and Rs 45 for a litre, the source adds.

In an order issued on July 18, 2013, the Supreme Court of India prohibited over-the-counter sale of acids unless the seller maintains records – with name, address, quantity of acid purchased, purpose of buying and other necessary details — about the buyers of acid.

The order also prohibited the sale of acids to individuals below the age of 18 years and made it compulsory for all sellers to declare their stocks with the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) within 15 days. Undeclared stock was to be confiscated and the defaulters fined up to Rs 50,000.

The concerned bench of judges added that states and Union Territories which were yet to frame rules to declare ‘acid’ a poisonous substance must do so within three months.

“Soon after that, the central government classified acid under the Poisons Act, 1919. But the Supreme Court order was hardly implemented by any of the States and Union Territories (including Delhi) verbatim,” says Alok Dikshit, activist and founder of the Stop Acid Attack campaign.

Bangladesh used to witness more than 1,000 acid attack cases a year once upon a time. But once the acid control Bill was introduced in 2002, which was quite similar to the aforementioned order of the Supreme Court, acid attack cases plummeted to nearly 300, says Dikshit.

A report supported by the Avon Foundation for Women published in 2011 revealed that while acid attack cases continue to rise in India, in Bangladesh they have declined by about 20 per cent annually in the past decade since the stringent laws regarding acid sales were introduced.

With regard to acid attack cases in Bangladesh, the chargesheet has to be filed by the cops within 15 days of arresting the accused. But no such rule exists in India till date, says Alok Dikshit. He further says that we do not have fast track courts to deal with acid attack cases the way Bangladesh does.

“In Bangladesh, they also have a set of guidelines for the police with regard to investigation of acid attack cases. It shows how we are still behind Bangladesh as far as dealing with the issue of acid attacks is concerned,” says Dikshit.

Thankfully, after implementation of the recommendations made by the Justice Verma Committee, amendments were made in the Indian Penal Code and sections 126A and 126B were introduced to deal exclusively with acid attack cases.

“Acids are used by various industries and there may be difficulties in implementing the order straightaway. But the issue has to be taken as an agenda and pushed by the Centre in its meetings with the states,” opines Dikshit.

After the recent acid attack on the female doctor in Delhi, data regarding the same was tabled in both houses of Parliament. As revealed by the data - provided by the National Crime Record Bureau for 2011, 2012 and 2013 - Delhi topped the chart with 36 acid attack cases. The national capital was followed by neighbouring state Uttar Pradesh with 33 acid attack cases reported during the same period. Notably, there is no such official data available for period prior to 2011.

According to the Delhi Police records, 23 acid attack cases were reported in the national capital up to December 15 this year. Of that, seven cases were reported from the north-east district of Delhi followed by central, south-east and east districts with four cases each. However, in previous year, 18 acid attack cases were reported.

“To control misuse of acids, it should be ensured that there is no unaccounted access to concentrated acids,” says MG Satya, SDM, Mayur Vihar in East Delhi.

He further informs that in East Delhi, the authorities conduct regular drives to keep check on over-the-counter sale of acids.

“All traders who deal with concentrated acids — mostly hardware product sellers — and industries in which acids are used in some process have to provide us monthly record of acid stock without fail,” says Satya. He further says that even schools with acids in their laboratories are not exempted from the rule.

Recently, the authorities had conducted a search at a market in New Ashok Nagar area where according to media reports, even grocery stores had acid stocks. And none of them submitted monthly stock data at SDM’s office. But they came out clean. “We suspect that they cleared their stocks after they read the media reports. From now on we have planned to conduct surprise checks on them,” says Satya.

Apart from fixed shops selling acids, there are a large number of mobile vendors who come to East Delhi localities on bicycles to sell acids. They come mostly from nearby village areas in Uttar Pradesh. And it is tough to keep a tab on them not only because they keep moving and hence become difficult to track, but also because their stock shall fall under the jurisdiction of another state.

“The problem is that the SC order never turned into an Act, which makes the concept equivocal. When we come across defaulters, we confiscate the stock unaccounted for. At times we have also imposed penalty. But we have to deal with a lot of confusion. So it is important to have it as an Act of law,” Satya adds.

What the law says

In an order issued on July 18, 2013, the Supreme Court of India prohibited over-the-counter sale of acids unless the seller maintains records – with name, address, quantity of acid purchased, purpose
of buying and other necessary details – about the buyers of acid.

It also said that the seller should submit the details of sale to the local police within three days of the transaction.

The order also prohibited the sale of acids to individuals below the age of 18 years and it compulsory for all sellers to declare their stocks with the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) in a 15-days interval.

Undeclared stock was to be confiscated and the defaulters fined up to Rs 50,000.

Bangladesh used to witness more than 1,000 acid attack cases a year once upon a time. But once the acid control Bill was introduced in 2002, which was quite similar to the aforementioned order of the Supreme Court, acid attack cases plummeted to nearly 300.

Abhishek Dey

Abhishek Dey

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