Acid Economy in India: A Critical Need to Solve the Complex Supply Chain Challenge

Acid attacks are a prevalent social issue in South Asia. It is a malice that gets constant attention in the press through reporting of attacks or through the stories of strong-willed survivors. India is one of the countries with the highest number of attacks with about 1000 per year (~300 being reported cases). The victims are by and large women. Young women, in particular, are the target of this vicious crime with many facing insurmountable personal trauma and social stigma. The reasons for these attacks, which span the rural and urban spheres, is mostly to do with harassment, stalking, dowry demand, money, sex and hatred. It is by far the most used tool for seeking revenge where in the scars are damaging and permanent. While it is largely a social issue that is more visible in low-income neighborhoods, even countries like England have seen a rise in such cases for other reasons. It has in fact been globally recognized as one of the worst kind of crime in human society.

The problem of acid attacks are well covered and the Indian government has been mostly proactive, albeit slow, in bringing much needed laws and regulations at different times. However, it has also been widely seen as not enough done with the enforcement and implementation of law being weak. The national law commission in 2006 made some much needed recommendations for the tracking and control, including selective banning, of the distribution and sales of acid. Sections 326A (acid attack) and 326B (attempt to carry out an acid attack) have been pushed to be added to the IPC (Indian Penal Code). Shops are required to keep details of quantity sold, address and photograph of the buyer and the OTC sale of acid is generally prohibited unless a sales log is maintained. Acid attacks are also considered a non-bailable offense with a minimum of 5 years prison term and INR 300,000 given as compensation to victims, with a third of that amount given within 15 days of the attack. The National Commission for Women (NCW) apparently set up a National Digital Database of Acid Attacks that has real-time data from all over India of attacks (that are reported). While not publicly available, this database is used to pressure the police force (Director General of Police) in a State to ensure prompt investigation. As can be seen, a lot has been done with good intent, but there is a lot more that has to be done further.

I personally came across a touching Acid survivor’s story that prompted me to learn more about the root cause and the seriousness of the situation. I soon realized that there were a good amount of wonderful NGOs and other Public/Private Foundations that took up the cause of the attack victims and helped a lot with their uprooted lives. When I researched further material and a few other sources about attacks globally, it was done out of a belief that nothing much is probably happening in India to address it. Contrary to my belief, several measures are being taken to bring about change and my enthusiasm in pinpointing a singular cause that could then be resolved through the magic brush of technology wasn’t to be so. However, I felt learning more about the challenges inherent in what is called as the “Acid Economy”could be the key to figuring out the solutions that can be built to remove this malice of human society permanently in this world.

As with all problems that are not completely solved in this world, the identification of the problem is easier than getting to the root cause. Coming from the world of retail, I felt I could take a product viewpoint of how an acid in a bottle flows through the supply chain, thereby giving me the opportunity to catch the missing link and voila – problem solved! It wasn’t to be so. Acid is so easy to obtain and so cheap to pay for in India that it is almost a miracle that the attacks are relatively less common for such a hugely populated country. In fact, while standing outside the balcony of my apartment overlooking a housing cluster in the neighborhood, I found a man selling acid bottles for cleaning toilets by arranging them neatly in a bamboo basket that he carried over on a bicycle. These toilet cleaners are available in any kirana store. While the notoriously strong acids are difficult to get, the ones including toilet cleaners that may be “mild” but still do enough major damage to the skin, are just about available anywhere.

Tezaab” as one variation of acid is called, is used to clean rusted tools in auto repair shops. This is mostly Sulfuric acid and is very harmful. Nitric acid is available in jewelry shops and is used for polishing purposes. Of course, one can’t go and buy the acid from these places, but there are options around the local streets in many such commercial neighborhoods. Such shops that sell, stock or use acid may actually be a shanty place with no registration or licensed operation of any kind. So, how in the world can a crazy soon-to-be attacker be prevented from getting acid in the first place??

I believe, addressing acid attacks can be looked at from the perspective of three core areas as below:

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I personally feel that there is a need to tackle the challenge in the supply chain under “prevention” in order to make lasting impact in solving the problem. However, it is the most complex and nearly impossible area to solve as the chain is broken and cannot be controlled without other measures (including education, laws etc.) collectively creating the necessary impact.

The area of “cure” is the realm of science and medicine. Unfortunately, a lot of research is needed to figure ways in which permanent disfigurement can be prevented for victims and there is an ability to provide less expensive treatment options that are widely available to victims in a timely manner, as in within a few minutes of an attack. Many victims only have the recourse to water to wash off the acid once attacked but this does seldom make the situation any better. There is a supply chain solve here too – making treatment options like medicines and the rightly trained doctors to be easily available across health care centers even in poor urban and rural areas of India.

The area of “support” receives a lot of attention from NGOs, support organizations and even the government. Rightfully so, the trauma of acid attacks require a lot of help and great people are at work to make good things happen here. I feel, this area is in safe hands, although one day, the government and society should be able to take up the work that many NGOs are collectively or singularly doing in this area.

Going back to “prevention”, the thinking is straightforward here. This is the area where good things done right can be helpful in preventing an attack from even happening in the first place. While the laws are catching up, this will always be an area where everything cannot be solved through the iron hand of justice. Bangladesh has however stood out as a widely cited example where the enforcement of law has helped in bringing this crime to a more controllable level. The country has a 15-member National Acid Control Council which is headed by a District Commissioner. The council members come from government, lawyers, media and women’s groups. But, the law enforcement in general suffers from some challenges that go back to solving the supply chain loopholes – the source of acid used in an attack is impossible to find (or difficult) and covering up the real supply of acids in records in generally considered effortless!

It is mind boggling to imagine the simplicity of committing a severe crime with the least amount of fear of the law by any lay person with just a few currency notes in hand. This problem seemed much bigger than the attention it has been getting. Among the several areas that need the required attention, an innovative solve in the Supply Chain from a prevention standpoint will hopefully come a long way in supporting grassroots education and the enforcement of law to come together and permanently prevent acid attacks.

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The acid supply chain is plainly said, largely invisible. It can be traced to a few visible players (black arrows) but they are not necessarily the “final” suppliers to the actual attackers. This makes the attackers bold in their actions and the recognized supply chain players helpless in this matter. Solutions that are hence catered towards bringing visibility to the supply chain (the red arrows) up until the end user (the attacker) may fail. But, what is feasible is to dig deeper into the last-mile distribution chain and identify the products (or rather sub-products) generated (to remove them permanently from the market if needed), their purchase patterns and then find ways in which visibility, transparency, education and laws can be deployed.

With a simple mobile app, a blockchain provenance and hopefully a stronger enforcement of the “you are being watched” message into the psyche of anyone who touches acid, the possibility of attacks may become lesser and lesser. I hope to pursue this line of work further and make a meaningful difference to preventing acid attacks.

If you are an expert in this field (supply chain) or domain (acid attacks), a full-stack technology developer or any person willing to contribute to and partner in this effort, please do get in touch with me. If this work is already being done by others, please guide me to them.

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