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We Must Compensate Acid Attack Survivors, But What Else Should We Do?

Posted on November 30, 2015 in Society

By Salina Wilson

On 15th November 2015, we woke up to the news of Darya Yurieva, a 23-year-old Russian woman who was attacked with acid by her jilted lover in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. Despite stringent laws on the regulation of the sale of acid in the market and punishments for perpetrating the crime, attacks using the corrosive substance are on the rise with 25 cases in Delhi in 2015 alone. Interestingly, the Sushma Swaraj led External Affairs ministry made a statement that all the expenses towards the medical treatment of the survivor who has been flown to Russia, shall be borne by the Indian state. The Uttar Pradesh government also announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh, whereas its state Victim Compensation Scheme sets aside merely Rs 1.5 lakh as minimum compensation for acid attacks.

sapna acid attack survivor delhi
Sapna, an acid attack survivor from Delhi

The main provision, under which compensation could be sought for acid attack survivors prior to 2008, was Section 357 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Since this provision was dependent on the discretion of judges, what has been witnessed historically was that only token fines have been imposed on perpetrators due to constitutional limitations where any fines imposed under Section 357 for providing restitution to the survivor was to be balanced against the imprisonment of the perpetrator. The judge has to choose between ordering a larger fine or a longer imprisonment as they usually cannot order both. Secondly the restitution under CrPC Section 357 must be rationally related to the perpetrator’s ability to pay. Thus, if the perpetrator is destitute one cannot impose a huge sum as fine, hence making the compensation due to the survivor, grossly inadequate. This was taken into cognisance in the Criminal law amendments in 2008 which introduced Section 357A in Code of Criminal Procedure, which required state and UTs to develop comprehensive compensation schemes for survivors of crimes, including acid attacks. Section 357C introduced in the Criminal law amendments of 2013, required all hospitals, public or private, to provide immediate first aid to survivors of sexual violence including acid violence.

After being propelled by the Supreme Court to issue schemes under CrPC Section 357A, states and UTs came out with Victim Compensation Schemes with amounts varying from 50000 in some states to 3 lakhs in another. In Laxmi vs. Union of India, the Court, in its order dated 18th July 2013, declared virtually all the states’ 357A compensation schemes which provide compensation between Rs 50,000- Rs 2 lakhs to be “inadequate” and directed that 357A schemes “must be enhanced to at least Rs 3 lakhs”. The Laxmi Court clarified on 3rd December 2013 that the Rs 3 lakh as the minimum established in its July order was an “interim arrangement” pending the submission of the 357A schemes by all states and UTs. The Court also discussed an affidavit by Haryana which said that besides 3 lakh as compensation, the scheme proposed by Haryana shall cover all the long-term medical costs of the survivors- plastic surgery and psychological care.

Almost a month prior to the attack on Darya Yurieva, on October 14, 2015, the Ministry of Home Affairs of the same government announced the ‘Central Victim Compensation Fund‘ (CVCF) whose corpus- a sum of 200 crores was taken from the Nirbhaya fund. The minimum amount delineated for a survivor of acid attack in the CVCF is Rs 3 lakh. Ironically, one of the objectives of the scheme is to reduce the disparity of the quantum of compensation under state Victim Compensation Schemes (VCS) across states for proposing different compensation amounts. It is thus curious that another wing of the same government announces “all medical costs” to be covered by the Indian state whereas a number of survivors in India are paying for their reconstructive surgeries out of their own pockets. In this case, presumably because the survivor being an expatriate, this form of gruesome crime also throws open to the outside world the not-so-well-kept secret that India is yet to acknowledge the sexual autonomy of women and it is this failure that is brazenly displayed during such attacks. It then becomes not just a matter of justice or restitution, but that of diplomacy.

There should be justice for Darya, but there should also be justice for many others who await a similar if not the same promise by the Indian government – that they too shall be taken care of by the state, that justice is not merely handing the perpetrator a sentence, that their restitution is also on the government’s priority list. Most survivors lost vital organs after the attacks and thus are unable to return to their previous workplaces or move on with academics among other pursuits. The current understanding of compensation has failed to address a crucial factor that survivors need the state’s active support in assimilating back into society and basically, moving on. The Delhi Government announcing jobs for acid attack survivors may be viewed as an instrumental step in this direction. What needs emphasis in courtrooms and the government is to broaden the definition of compensation to include not just a fixed amount, but also support for long-term reconstructive surgeries, psychological care and rehabilitation.