By Suhasini Srinivasan, Army Institute of Law, Mohali.

The Supreme Court on 10th April, 2015 asked all private hospitals throughout the country to provide free treatment, including medicines and corrective surgeries, to all acid attack victims and that private hospitals could neither “turn away” victims of acid attack nor wash their hands off after providing first aid. The order said that the term “treatment” included reconstructive surgery, free medicines, bed, rehabilitation and aftercare. The court also asked the Medical Council of India (MCI) to take up the issue of free treatment with private hospitals. This order came in response to a PIL filed by acid attack survivor Laxmi in the year 2006. During the hearing, the bench, which had fixed Rs 3 lakh as minimum compensation in such cases, was informed by Additional Solicitor General Maninder Singh, appearing for the Centre, that the Victims Compensation Schemes have been put in place by almost all the state governments.

The Social Justice Bench  consisting of Justices Madan B Lokur and Uday U Lalit asked all the state governments and Union Territories to ”take up the matter with the private hospitals” in order to ensure that acid attack victims are attended to immediately and adequately. Private hospitals have also been directed to issue certificates to such people endorsing them as acid attack victims. The certificate will be issued by the first hospital that an acid attack victim approaches and will be used for claiming future benefits. On banning the over-the-counter sale of acid across the country, it asked all states and UTs to notify acid as a ”scheduled substance” to stop its unregulated sale. It directed its orders be sent to chief secretaries of all states and UTs for their compliance and directed them to publicize it to ensure awareness among the people.

The directive came a day after the Centre told the court that private hospitals were bound to provide not just first aid to acid attack victims and but also free-of-cost treatment. Hospitals refusing first aid or free treatment to such people should be penalized, the central government had told the court. The years 2011, 2012 and 2013 witnessed a total of 83, 85 and 66 cases having been reported respectively, but this number shot up to 309 in 2014. The Centre, in its affidavit filed in pursuance of the 6th February order of the court, has said that in 2014, 309 acid attack incidents were reported in the country, out of which 185 incidents were from Uttar Pradesh-the highest. The year 2014 is almost four times the average number of acid attack cases in the preceding years. The court had earlier also sought a comprehensive affidavit from the Centre on the number of acid attack cases apart from the mechanism of treatment, compensation and rehabilitation of the victims. It had asked the Union home secretary to convene a meeting of chief secretaries and their counterparts in states to work out modalities to implement Section 357C of the CrPC (Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013). In order to curb acid attacks on women, the apex court had earlier directed that this crime be made a non-bailable offence.

  • Role of the Govt. and Private Hospitals:

The bench had also passed a slew of interim directions on various issues, including the sale of acids. The court had also said that out of the compensation amount of Rs 3 lakh, Rs 1 lakh should be paid within 15 days of bringing to the notice of the state government the occurrence of the attack.

The court directed the State governments to take action against the hospitals turning away victims. The Centre had last month directed all states to ensure speedy disbursal of the compensation amount, as well as timely treatment for them. After laying down a stringent regulatory mechanism for sale of acid to curb acid attacks on women, the court asked private hospitals to bear the entire cost of medical treatment of acid attack survivors, including costly plastic and corrective surgeries.

This order came in regard to the case of Laxmi vs Union of India [(2014) 4 SCC 431] wherein, an acid attack victim Laxmi in the year 2006, was set to fight a long drawn battle to get adequate treatment and facilities for the victims. The Bench was interpreting Section 357C of the Criminal Procedure Code, inserted in Feb 2013, to deal with the issue of the cost of treatment of acid attack victims and also of section 357A of CrPC which is the victim compensation scheme.

In my opinion, although it is a good initiative but I feel that section 357C of CrPC covers only the first-aid medical treatment to be free of cost, which is the duty of the private hospitals in cases of rape victims also. But this judgment has made it mandatory for the private hospitals to also grant the expensive corrective and reconstructive surgeries, the overall treatment, medicines, food and the postoperative care. The Government should be able to give the victims efficient treatment and adequate facilities in government hospitals itself, apart from the compensation of minimum 3 lakhs. As the plastic surgeries for such cases of acid attacks are highly expensive and require good amount of expertise and facilities, which  many a times are not available in the government-run hospitals, hence the state governments may always cover for the requisite extra cost incurred by the said private hospitals.

  • Disadvantages of the judgment:

The private run hospitals are already bound to provide the initial emergency treatment free of cost, but expecting those hospitals to give world class treatment and surgeries totally free is a bit far-fetched, because the private hospitals would be more reluctant now to treat such victims and they can always divert the further treatment of the victim to a burns unit of a govt. hospital.

The order states that the first hospital has to issue a certificate to the victim, then obviously if the victim approaches a private hospital, knowing that it’s an acid attack victim and the costs involved, the said hospital will try and deny the issuance of the certificate on some pretext and refer the victim to some other hospital. This will further create problems for the victim and will not ensure a proper and stable treatment. Also, it is the foremost responsibility of the state and the government to protect the victims of such heinous crimes and not just dump the responsibility on the private players. If victims of only such heinous crimes are granted this privilege of free treatment in good private hospitals, then I feel that other serious crimes should also be included in Section 357C of CrPC of the same grave nature.

  • Some Suggestions:

The government, as a step to ensure the implementation of the SC order, must give some incentives to the private hospitals so that they do not turn away the victims due to the expenses. However, to keep a check on all the private-run hospitals is not an easy task, so to make sure that all the hospitals give adequate medical treatment to such victims, the respective state governments should ensure that all hospitals both govt. and private, should have a compulsory burns ward and are equipped to deal with an acid attack victim. Moreover, the govt. hospitals need to be upgraded to take on such cases, with reconstructive surgeries made available, so that a victim does not have to go from pillar to post to get a free surgery and treatment from a private hospital, which is an important aspect.  Seeing the sharp increase in the acid attacks in 2014, I feel that a separate act for acid attack victims should be enacted which specifies and grants rights to the victims in medical matters. Also, the attacker should be made more liable for compensating his victim for all the medical costs incurred, so as to deter people from committing this sought of a grave crime.