A Generational Fight: Combating Acid Attacks in India

Rachel Jos, Jul 5, 2024

Walking into a local grocery store, you would not expect to see corrosive materials such as highly concentrated hydrochloric and sulfuric acids stocked on the shelves. These deadly substances, branded as necessary cleaning agents, are easily accessible and cheap in many stores in India. Yet, these “cleaning agents” are strong enough to melt down human skin and bone. Unsurprisingly, malicious predators fueled by misogyny use these acids to target women. Feeling angered by their advances being rejected or emasculated by a female counterpart rising to a position of leadership, these predators often choose to purchase acids locally and attack their unassuming colleague or classmate, throwing these substances onto their bodies in hopes of disfiguring their appearance and disempowering them. Although there have been attempts to reduce the prevalence of these acids, women continue to live in fear for their lives and futures. 


A Brief Analysis of Acid Attacks 

Acid attacks are primarily a gender-based issue, with more than 80 percent of victims being women and 84 percent of perpetrators being men [1]. Corrosive fluids are thrown onto the target, leading to the skin tissue and bone dissolving beneath. Hundreds of cases are reported each year that are met with marginal conviction rates. Typically less than 5 percent of incidents result in conviction while almost 90 percent of acid attack cases never reach trial. Figure 1 below illustrates the low conviction and high arrest rates, indicating insufficient action in these cases after arresting the perpetrator. In 2021, acquittal rates rose while convictions fell dramatically. With almost 60 percent of cases estimated to be unreported, investigating the cases that do end up in the system is critical [2]. 


Figure 1: Arrest and Conviction Rates Over Five Years 


The scars are permanent, both psychologically and physically. Coming into contact with these acids can lead to permanent disfigurement, scarring, blindness, paralysis, and death. These complications, combined with post-traumatic stress, can lead to lasting mental health consequences that can devastatingly alter one's sense of well-being. Survivors continue to face obstacles for the rest of their lives, often struggling to re-enter the workforce and obtain employment after their changed physical appearance [3]. Acid attacks are also linked to socioeconomic class, with most victims being low-income. Poor financial circumstances create barriers to obtaining medical care and access to treatment, especially mental healthcare [4]. These realities prompt a need to reflect on the persisting social and legal systems that have allowed generations of women to suffer violence physically and emotionally with no justice in sight.


The Major Implications of Laxmi v. Union of India 

In 2005, Laxmi Agarwal, a 15-year-old girl, was waiting at a bus stop when a man over twice her age threw acid on her face; this was an act of retaliation after Laxmi rejected his marriage proposal. For close to a decade, amidst surgical procedures and recovery, she became an activist for women’s rights and collected thousands of signatures to stop the sale of acids [5]. Years later, in 2013, the Supreme Court established new laws on the sale of corrosive fluids under the landmark case Laxmi v. Union of India. The key results are listed below [6]:

  • Compensation: A main result of this case ruling was ensuring that the government compensate victims so they could receive medical treatment. The orders state that victims are entitled to at least 300,000 Indian Rupees, which roughly translates to 3,600 United States Dollars. 

  • Section 326A IPC Amendment: This section was added to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and establishes that perpetrators of acid attacks will face a minimum imprisonment period of 10 years, along with a fine that goes towards the medical expenses of the victim. 

  • Section 326B IPC Amendment: This section was also added to the IPC and establishes that those who attempt to administer acid will face a minimum imprisonment period of five years, a maximum of seven years, and a fine. 


Why has Laxmi v. Union of India Fallen Short?

The restrictions and bans put on the sale of acids are not going to be effective if markets continue to sell them regardless of the objectives that the courts previously established, such as verifying the identity of the individual making the purchase and confirming that the individual has a legitimate reason for buying the substance [7]. Though laws and policies have been put into place, without enforcement they become null and void. As recently as 2023, the government continues to refuse a blanket ban on the sale of these acids, concerned that businesses intending to sell the corrosive fluids as cleaning agents will face repercussions [8]. The concept that concentrated sulfuric and hydrochloric acids are “necessary” cleaning agents for a common household is a misconception. In fact, most plumbers do not recommend purchasing drain cleaners with concentrated acids, because there are alternatives to chemical cleaners [9]. Solutions as simple as baking soda and vinegar are effective in removing minor clogs. Without proper regulations, hazardous chemical-grade cleaning agents should not be sold to the general public. The government ironically empathizes more with the potential repercussions that local grocery stores might face by not selling unnecessary cleaning agents than the repercussions women in India have faced for decades as a result of their inability to act. These acids are widely available and objectively inexpensive; reducing their accessibility should be of the utmost importance. Enforcement in the criminal court system is also essential. With incredibly low conviction rates, victims will fail to see justice, and perpetrators of these crimes will continue to absolve themselves of accountability. 


Moving Forward: A Call to Action

Around 35 percent of women aged 15-49 in India have experienced intimate partner violence, which is 8 percent higher than the global average [10]. Gender-based violence is undeniably pervasive and women continue to be brutalized by acid attacks that threaten every aspect of their lives. Without taking serious measures to limit the sale of these acids or ban them entirely and improve conviction rates inside the justice system, for the minority of cases that are reported, this issue will continue to persist generationally. These attacks are meant to strip women of their “beauty,” to disempower them, and to reassert deep-set notions of misogyny that can only be challenged through evolving individual perspectives on the expectations and norms that we set for women in society. Besides implementing rules and regulations, we must reflect on why society continues to encourage stigmas around women reporting abuse and normalizes men impulsively resorting to violence or physical harm. Acid attacks are sobering portrayals of the dehumanization of women, which has continued throughout time, and we will only see change when it is truly demanded–in our political systems and within our homes.


[1] Khan, Mohammad A., Rahul Katiyar, Manisha Verma, and Anoop K. Verma. “Spectrum of vitriolage in India: A retrospective data record-based study.” NCBI. February 13th, 2024. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC11006047/.

[2] Kapoor, Cheena. “Acid attack survivors demand ban on online sales after girl targeted in Delhi.” The Guardian. December 21st, 2022.

[3] Kumar, Vidhik. “Acid Attacks in India: A Socio-Legal Report.” DigitalCommons@URI. 2021.

[4] Dasgupta, KumKum. “India's acid attack recommendations risk rubbing salt into survivors' wounds | KumKum Dasgupta.”The Guardian. July 23rd, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2013/jul/23/india-acid-attack-survivors.

[5] Geneva International Centre for Justice. “Laxmi Agarwal - The Acid Attack Survivor.” September 5th, 2022.

[6] Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs. “Advisory Acid Attack.” April 26th, 2015.

[7] Khan, Naila. “India: despite ban on acid sales, attacks continue to rise.” FairPlanet. February 1st, 2023. https://www.fairplanet.org/story/a-national-epidemic-indian-acid-attack-survivors-speak-out/.

[8] The Economic Times.“HC refuses to put blanket ban on sale of acid, directs govt to strictly implement rules to prevent misuse for crimes.” July 27th, 2023. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/india/hc-refuses-to-put-blanket-ban-on-sale-of-acid-directs-govt-to-strictly-implement-rules-to-prevent-misuse-for-crimes/articleshow/102177923.cms?from=mdr.

[9] Pelle, Dino. “Are Chemical Drain Cleaners Safe? (The Unvarnished Truth!).” 1-Tom-Plumber. April 25th, 2024.

[10]The World Bank. “India: Gender Data Portal.” https://genderdata.worldbank.org/en/economies/india.