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After Fakhra: Acid for sale, no questions asked

Salman Siddiqui

KARACHI: As coverage of acid victim Fakhra Younus dies down in the media, the chemical market in Karachi continues to thrive on the same street, Napier Road, where she once lived. In response to the easy availability of the product, human rights activists have called for much tougher controls on how it is bought and sold.

Dozens of shops filled with acid drums line the narrow streets of the chemical market. Anyone can buy any amount of acid for a few hundred rupees without being asked the purpose for purchasing the potentially lethal substance.

Baqir, an acid dealer at the market, was mixing a strange concoction in an open drum, without protective gear such as gloves or a mask, in a muddy lane. The toxic fumes emitted fused with the polluted air, inhaled by dozens of people walking by.

When approached for the ‘best’ acid in his stock, he proudly took out a large container and said, “This can melt even the strongest steel. You can have it for only Rs500.”

In December 2011, the Pakistan Penal Code’s Criminal Procedure was amended under the Acid Control and Crime Prevention Act. Although it listed severe punishments for the perpetrators of the crime, calling for life imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs500,000, it did not list any measures against the suppliers of the lethal substance.

National Commission on the Status of Women’s chairperson Anisa Haroon said that acid control measures had been suggested in the initial draft of the act, but they were removed. “At the moment, the act pertains to only those who commit the crime of throwing acid on people,” she said.

She agreed that the battle was only half-won. “The problem we faced back then was that the ministry of industries had to be involved to regulate the acid suppliers. So it was decided that in the first step we’ll take measures against the criminals and later on take steps to regulate the supply.”

According to the Pakistan Chemicals and Dyes Merchants Association (PCDMA) Secretary General Syed Shakil Ahmed, there are 1,300 companies throughout Pakistan that are associated with the business of making these products and are registered with the association.Out of these, about 1,000 are in Karachi.

A large number of these companies are in the business of supplying chemicals and dyes to the multi-million dollar textile industry of the country.

The PCDMA chairman Nasiruddin Fateh Kukda put the entire blame of the misuse of acid on the retailers. “The wholesaler sells his wares to the retailer, who then sell it to any customer on the street. We can take measures against the wholesaler, but there is no retailers association where this issue can be taken up.”

However, when told about how wholesalers were also selling the acid openly in the chemical market, Kukda admitted it was possible that ‘some people’ were doing it. “At the moment, the business community is facing greater problems. We are facing threats by the extortion mafia on a daily basis and we want to sort this out first,” he said. Kukda added that he was open to all suggestions to curb the misuse.

Human rights activists such as the Aurat Foundation’s Mahnaz Rehman call for a strict regulation of acid and other lethal substances being openly sold in the markets. They say that firstly only those companies and shops should be allowed to sell acid that have a valid licence. Secondly, they say that any customer who asks for the substance should first submit a photo ID and fill out a form stating his intention. Also, they call for a complete ban of selling the sulphuric acid in its undiluted form in the open market.

They point out that acid is being used not only in crimes against women, but serial killers have also been known to use the substance to dispose of bodies, citing the case of Javed Iqbal, who confessed to killing at least 100 children in Lahore and dumping their bodies in acid drums.

Beautician turned human rights activist Musarrat Misbah, who also dealt with Fakhra’s case, said it took the country more than 60 years to enact a law against people who commit the heinous crime of acid throwing on women. “I just hope it doesn’t take us another 60 years to make a law to regulate the acid suppliers,” she said.

The Express Tribune