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Acid sales regulation

By: Syed Mohammad Ali

The horrific act of attacking people with acid has been taking place across different parts of our country for the past several years. While instances of acid attacks occur in major cities, this particularly debilitating form of violence is even more prevalent in rural areas, such as the cotton-growing belt of southern Punjab. The need for an overarching legislative framework to deter acid attacks and provide relief to the victims remains vital. There is, however, another possibility which is to prevent acid attacks from taking place by regulating the widespread access to highly concentrated acid.

All across the country, one can walk into a number of shops in rural or urban centres and purchase any amount of highly concentrated acid from shopkeepers, who barely raise an eyebrow when selling this highly corrosive substance to their consumers. Besides the use of concentrated acid in several industrial processes, highly concentrated sulphuric and hydrochloric acid is sold to the general public due to its multi-purpose usage, which is the real problem.

In Pakistan’s cotton belt, highly concentrated acid is used to remove lint from cotton seed, as it is a cheap way to obtain clean seeds ready to be replanted. Given this practical use of acid, its sale is widespread. The accessibility of acid not only encourages its use to perpetrate the crime of acid throwing, but the widespread use of acid by the rural populace also poses health hazards, causes accidents and has detrimental effects on the environment. All these factors provide a convincing enough argument for the government to find substitutes for the prevalent cotton seed treatment.

In urban areas, it is a common household practice to use acid for cleaning or even drain-opening purposes. Promoting the use of safer cleaning agents would not prove very difficult, if government policies are put in place to deter their manufacture and sale. Sale licences are issued for possession and sale of poisonous substances, including acids, under the Poison Act (XII) of 1919.

Experts working on preventing acid attacks have recommended that a broader regulatory mechanism be put in place to minimise acid usage in non-industrial purposes. Meanwhile, they have suggested that acid should not be sold without proper identification and that action should be taken against those who sell acid without seeing proof of identity. Others emphasise the need for customers to be required by law to submit a copy of their national identity card before they are sold acid.

According to a recent statement by an adviser to the chief minister of Punjab, the province has banned unregulated sale of sulphuric acid to control acid crime. There is little information available concerning the steps which have been taken in this regard and if this measure will be continued after the coming elections remains to be seen.

We would do well to look at how India is trying to grapple with the same problem. The Indian Supreme Court has recently directed the centre to convene a meeting of Chief Secretaries of all states to evolve a consensus to regulate the sale of acid on the basis of public interest litigation, demanding a ban on over-the-counter sale of acid. Some of the suggestions emerging from this process could also be implemented in Pakistan, in consultation with the relevant stakeholders, including those who manufacture and use it.

Source: The Express Tribune