It was a beautiful Thursday morning on 28 April for a 24-year-old Bengaluru girl as she went for work at a local bank. This was until her life came to a standstill when her stalker Nagesh Babu allegedly poured acid on her and fled.
The Quint takes a look at the lives of acid attack survivors in Karnataka where 35 cases of such attacks were reported between 1999 and 2004 alone. While these survivors are still awaiting justice, more such cases have been reported in the last decade.
“She studied MCom and secured a good job at the bank. Her older sister’s marriage has been fixed and our lives are now doomed,” her uncle Om Shankar told The Quint. Her parents are vegetable vendors, earning barely enough for the family of four.
“The doctor said that she has suffered 50 percent burns. What are we going to do?” Shankar cried.
The accused Nagesh Babu was a neighbour, who allegedly made advances when the survivor was in college. There was no news from him for the last seven years. “We believe he reacted this way thinking that her marriage has been fixed. But we were preparing for her sister’s wedding,” the uncle explained.
'Bengaluru Acid Attack Was Well Planned'
Acid attack perpetrators are getting to be clever criminals, leaving no traces behind, Karnataka police said. “The accused Nagesh planned this attack well in advance is what we have learnt. He left his belongings and absconded with cash, and there were no digital footprints too,” said former Bengaluru Police Commissioner Kamal Pant.
The police nabbed Nagesh Babu in May. When he allegedly tried to escape, he was shot in the leg. He is currently undergoing treatment.
In the last three, there may have been sporadic cases where the accused has thrown diluted liquids like phenyl on women, explained the senior police officer. Nagesh Babu case is the first one, in recent times, involving concentrated acid.
Acid Attacks in Karnataka
India's first acid attack case reportedly took place in 1982. Reports say that Karnataka witnessed 35 cases of acid attacks between 1999 and 2004.
According to a source who helps with rehabilitation of acid attack survivors, 78 percent of acid attacks are committed by jilted lovers, who pour acid to harm persons who rejected their love.
In Bengaluru's infamous acid attack case Jalahalli Police Station v. Joseph Rodrigues, a woman was allegedly attacked with acid by Rodrigues, who was upset with her for refusing his job offer. The survivor was left blind in the attack that took place in 1999.
The High Court of Karnataka sentenced the accused to life imprisonment after finding him guilty under Section 307 of the IPC (attempt to murder) in 2006.
“I wanted to introduce an “eye-for-eye” punishment. But we are a civilised society. Such heinous crimes like acid attacks are nothing short of murder. Here, the girl as well as her family have suffered. This deserves life imprisonment,” said former Karnataka High Court Judge and former Chief Justice of Kerala High Court SR Bannurmath.
He added, "Such cases are normally treated under section 326 of the IPC (causing grievous hurt), which result in 10 years imprisonment or less."
The Known Attacker
According to a report released by the Acid Trust International, around 76 percent of attackers in India are known to the survivors.
“Reporting cases then becomes a problem. We are in constant fear,” said Jayalakshmi, an acid attack survivor from Tumakuru. “In my case, my forever suspicious husband was the man who sealed my fate in 2003. The wound is still fresh in my mind. He threw acid on my face. It still hurts when people look at my old photograph and exclaim – you were this beautiful” she sighed.
Sulphuric and hydrochloric acids are the two common types of acids used in such attacks. These acids not only cause permanent scars, but can harm one’s vision and can be life threatening too.
Poor Health Infrastructure to Treat Acid Attack Survivors
“The only government hospital with good facilities to treat burn injuries in Karnataka is Victoria Hospital in Bengaluru. No wonder this place is always flooded. Yet, more can be done,” said Pragya Singh.
Acid attack and burns survivors always need advanced dressing material to avoid delays in wound healing or recovery.
The burns ward at Victoria Hospital reportedly sees 80 lakh patients arriving with second or third degree burns every year. Yet, there are only two skin banks in Karnataka.
“There is no awareness when it comes to skin donations. People are ready with eye donation, but seldom do we see people coming forward to donate their skin. While the procedure to extract the skin and store it is simple, it’s the donations that matter,” said Dr KP Ramesh, professor and HOD, plastic surgery at Victoria Hospital.
What the Law States in Such Cases
Earlier, acid attack was never considered a distinct offence, separate from causing grievous hurt, in the Indian Penal Code. In 2013, sections 326A and 326B were introduced to punish acid attack and attempted acid attack respectively through the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act.
The Supreme Court declared guidelines to streamline the sale of acid the same year. Licensed retailers are required to maintain a sales record along with the customer's reason on why they want to purchase acid.
“Karnataka was one of the first states where the government decided to award compensation for the victim’s family affected by acid attack,” said Pragya Singh, another acid attack survivor, who also runs an NGO Atijeevan Foundation. The Supreme Court’s order on granting compensation for acid attack victims came only in 2018.
An acid attack victim is to be paid Rs 1 lakh within 15 days after the assault, and Rs 2 lakh within two months. In the case of total disfigurement – Rs 7 lakh, and with respect to 50 percent burns – Rs 5 lakh.
In the recent case of the 24-year-old in Bengaluru, the victim’s family was given a compensation of Rs 5 lakh by the state government.
'Compensation Not Enough'
The Bengaluru victim underwent a surgery in May. “This is just one of the many that she will have to undergo,” stated Pragya Singh, adding that every surgery costs a minimum of Rs 15 lakh.
Every acid attack victim needs to use silicone gel sheets for their scars. A simple gel sheet measuring 12x6 cm will cost Rs 2,500, Singh continued.
“The surgeries costed me so much that I had to stop my children’s education. I couldn’t afford it anymore,” said Jayalakshmi, mother of two children, who are now 31 and 33 years old respectively. Being the daughter of a trader, Jayalakshmi had no money to even fight the legal battle. She soon turned a social worker, participated in several protests fighting for job opportunities for acid attack victims.
“The compensation isn’t enough. We are qualified enough for corporate jobs. The least the government can do is give us employment opportunities to help us stand on our feet,” stressed Jayalakshmi.
Pragya Singh is of the opinion that some companies today are coming forward to employ acid attack victims as part of their inclusive programme. There is still a long way to go.
Living in Constant Fear
According to the IPC sections 326A and 326B dealing with acid attacks, the maximum punishment is imprisonment up to 10 years. For several women, this means living in constant fear.
“My husband came back looking for me after serving his term. My relatives kicked him out. I am still living in fear. What if he knocks on my door one day?” asked a terrified Jayalakshmi.
“There are many who call me and say the perpetrator is walking freely after ruining my life,” said Pragya Singh.
Om Shankar, uncle of the Bengaluru survivor said, “She is such a nice girl. Imagine the pain that she will go through in the coming years. These kinds of punishments are just not enough. These culprits must be made to pay."
However, the number of acid attack cases in Karnataka has gone down.
Pragya Singh commented, “Cases have reduced considerably in Karnataka. I have personally come across two or three every year in the last couple of years. Increasing incidents of acid attacks are now witnessed in states like West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.”