The Supreme Court’s ultimatum to the Centre to come up with a plan by July 16 to stop the unauthorised retail sale of acid, or face a ban on all sales, is a deserved rebuke. Horrific instances of acid violence against women have failed to stir the government to act on the one single factor that is aiding the perpetrators — the easy availability of the chemical, at throwaway prices. The effort to end the disfiguring and often fatal attacks has progressed only in the realm of lawmaking. Stringent provisions have been introduced in the Indian Penal Code through the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, providing for a minimum of 10 years imprisonment for causing hurt by acid, extendable to life and with fine, the latter payable to the victim, besides the compensation available from the State government. Attempts to throw acid attract a five-year minimum sentence. That is welcome, but lawmaking is only part of the solution. The wide availability of the chemical — ranging from moderately corrosive cleaning acid in supermarkets, to concentrated forms used in industries such as dyeing, rubber curing, leather and gold purification — must be replaced by a system of checks and licensing. There is wholehearted national support for regulation of retail sale, and the legal battle to achieve this has wound on for seven years in the highest court. Yet, the Centre and the States have reacted with supine indifference.
Acid attack victims have been demanding that the deadly liquid be treated as an explosive, and brought under the purview of the Explosives Act. This would restrict the movement, storage and distribution of the material, and ensure that transactions at all levels are properly recorded, particularly at the point of sale. It would also introduce much-needed accountability for producers and users in industry. As the Law Commission had noted in its 226th report, regular checks and inspections are confined to explosives. Although acids are included under rules governing hazardous chemicals, regulatory procedures are confined to industrial handling and transit. The Centre must urgently address this lacuna by prescribing a strict regime for retail distribution, including sales on the Internet. It is pertinent to point out that the dispensing of many prescription drugs, particularly psychiatric medicines, has been tightened to prevent misuse, and the system is generally working well. Acid distribution can be similarly channelled through chosen outlets, and the purchaser made responsible for ultimate use. State governments, which have thus far failed to even adequately compensate victims, must work closely with the Centre to stop the gruesome attacks.