The strong correlation between acid attacks on women and the presence of a large number of industries using this hazardous material in some Asian countries underscores the need for strict regulation of production, storage, distribution and sale of these chemicals. India has neither comprehensive data on the number of acid attacks nor regulatory procedures worthy of mention. When a question was asked in Parliament not long ago about regulation of acid sale, the Minister of State for Home Affairs gave the unhelpful reply that since the chemical industry had been deregulated there was no scope for statutory control over acid distribution. Moreover, it would adversely affect the growth of the industry. Advocating laissez faire in the face of rising attacks on women over a whole decade is grossly insensitive. During the same period, Bangladesh, a country with similar problems, responded with remarkable concern by passing a law that introduced licensing of distribution and sale of acid. Unsurprisingly, it has witnessed a downward trend in attacks. The penal provisions against perpetrators in India have now been strengthened but the question of eliminating easy access to acid has received little attention. Among States, Tamil Nadu has announced that it will legislate to control sale, which is welcome.
Concentrated acid sold in India is relatively cheap and can be accessed through a variety of informal sector users. It is this ease of access that is spurring attacks. A system of licensing all transactions involving acid must therefore be introduced quickly. This would undoubtedly cover a wide range of users, including garment dyeing, rubber curing, leather, and gold purification, but the horrific suffering of acid attack victims makes some form of regulation essential. The new measures should also cover household cleaning acid, which is implicated in some attacks. The retail sale of this off-the-shelf chemical, which is sometimes also used in suicide attempts, can safely be banned because less corrosive alternatives are available. For effective enforcement, though, it is essential to institute a document trail from production to point of sale. This can be done even online, if suitable applicant identification is available. Since concentrated acid is now used as a weapon, its possession without documents should be made an offence. Evidently, combating these cruel attacks requires a combination of strong penal laws, an effective scheme of treatment, relief and rehabilitation, and curbing of easy access to the chemical. India has a deplorable record on all three fronts. It owes a duty to all women to eliminate the scourge.