UP until the 2013 amendment to Section 326 of the Indian Penal Code (voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means), there had been no specific legislation to deal with cases of acid attack cases in the country. Since the amendment, accused in acid attacks can be prosecuted under section 326A in case of grievous injury and 326B in cases of relatively lesser injuries to victims. The minimum punishment under 326A is 10 years, while the maximum is life imprisonment; under 326B, the minimum punishment is five years imprisonment, which can extend up to 7 years.
The Supreme Court in May 2013, while ruling on the case of Delhi-based acid victim Laxmi Agarwal, called for regulation on the sale of acid and directed state governments across the country to frame a policy for the welfare of victims. In its order, the apex court also ruled that state governments should hand over Rs 3 lakh as compensation for victims and ensure free treatment at any hospital.
“The compensation can be increased by state governments as has been done by UP, where up to Rs 10 lakh compensation is given depending upon the case, but not all states have followed it,” says Ashish Shukla, Director of Chhanv Foundation, an NGO that works for acid attack victims.
In line with the SC ruling, in 2015, Punjab, Haryana and the Union Territory of Chandigarh launched the ‘Victim Compensation Scheme’, which provides a maximum compensation of Rs 3 lakh, and less if acid has not affected the face or vital organs of the body. It also provides for free treatment to victims. In case of death of a victim, a compensation of Rs 5 lakh is to be paid to the next of kin. However, the six victims of Dharmabad, including Prabhjot, who is the most affected, have only got Rs 25,000 each. “I am planning to make a separate application in court to request a minimum of Rs 3 lakh as compensation for Prabhjot,” says Varinder Basa, her lawyer.
According to High Court lawyer Hari Chand Arora, the Punjab and Haryana High Court had in May 2014, ordered the Punjab, Haryana and UT governments to pay a monthly assistance to acid attack victims. While Haryana had begun paying Rs 5,000 per month to victims, it later increased the amount to Rs 8,000 per month, Punjab has begun paying victims Rs 8,000 since November 2017.
In the year that the girls were attacked, 2016, there were 187 acid attacks across states in the country and 202 attempts to carry out such attacks, as per NCRB data. In Delhi alone that year, there were 19 attacks and 23 attempts, while Punjab saw six acid attacks and 13 attempts.
Since the SC’s 2013 ruling, states have taken steps to regulate the sale of acid such as sulphuric acid and hydrochloric acid, which are used for toilet cleaning purposes. Dairy farmers use sulphuric acid to determine fat content in milk. As per a April 2014 notification by the Punjab government, there is a ban on open sale of acids. It states that now only licence holders can sell acid but they cannot sell to minors, have to maintain a register.
Accused find a way around it, say experts, by scooping up acid from car and inverter batteries. “We continue issuing orders restricting the sale of acid and also check the records of retailers from time to time. However acid in car batteries, inverters is at times used for crimes. Sale or purchase records are not required for batteries,” says the Ludhiana Police Commissioner R N Dhoke.