‘I Feel Like an Untouchable’: Travails of an Acid Attack Survivor
Acid attack survivors have not only been let down by the government but also by society that fails to accept them.
Daulatbi Khan, 34, used to work as a competent cosmetic professional with a US-based firm. She does not anymore. She owned a house in Mumbai’s Mira Road area. She does not anymore.
Over a property dispute that had been simmering for a while, Khan’s eldest sister, with the help of her husband and son, flung a vessel filled with acid at her. In the attack that occurred in October 2010, Khan and her younger sisters, Reshma, 32, and Saira, 30, were badly burnt.
With 35 percent burns on her face, chest, arms and legs, it took Khan more than two years to recover. When she could finally stand on her feet again, she was told that she was not fit for the job of a cosmetic professional. “They said one has to be presentable to be able to sell make-up products,” she said. “I kept looking for jobs. But people would shut the door seeing my damaged face.”
Rathi’s Case Renews Questions on Rehabilitation
On 9 September, in an unprecedented move, the Sessions Court in Mumbai handed the death sentence to the accused in the Preeti Rathi case The 23-year old Delhi girl was attacked with acid in Mumbai as she moved cities for a promising career in the Navy. Ankur Panwar, who lived in Rathi’s area in Delhi, and was in love with her, could not handle ‘no’ for an answer, and in May 2013, attacked her with 2 litres of acid as she disembarked at Bandra station. A month later, Rathi succumbed to her burn injuries.
However, the case has renewed questions regarding the rehabilitation of acid attack victims. The survivors face discrimination in society, and many are unable to recover because they cannot afford the expensive treatment.
Tough Finding a Job
Khan, who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) since 2015, said the years after her recovery were absolutely dreadful. She had to move out of the rented house in Bandra after the attack, the neighbours ostracised her, while the burden of the expenses of her and her sisters’ treatment palpably hung around her neck. “I had become desperate enough to be willing to work as a sweeper,” she recollected. “I could not even get a job as a housemaid. I was jobless from 2012-14, when we sold our flat and paid for our treatment. I finally got a job as a cook at a house in 2014.”
Khan’s treatment alone has cost her more than Rs 10 lakh so far. Including the amount for her sisters, she has spent a bomb. But she still considers herself fortunate because she landed at HRLN through activists who helped fight her case. “But what about others?” she asked.
Compensation Not Enough
According to the Supreme Court order of December 2015, acid attack victims are supposed to be treated free of cost, besides considering them physically challenged, This would make them eligible for several government schemes for the disabled, including the 3 percent reservation in government jobs. But victims and activists say hospitals claim they have not received the GR (government resolution) to treat patients for free, or to certify them handicapped.
Maharashtra’s Health Minister Deepak Sawant said he had not received any specific complaints regarding the noncompliance of the Supreme Court order. “We will definitely look into the matter and ensure the Supreme Court guidelines are being followed,” he said.
Senior advocate Rama Sarode, who has frequently taken up women’s issues, said the lack of enforcement makes one wonder whether we really want to rehabilitate acid attack survivors or merely want cosmetic changes.
The government cannot simply give Rs 3 lakh as compensation and be done with it. The medicines cost a lot too.Rama Sarode, Senior Advocate
One of the good things about the acid attack law is that the fine imposed on the culprit is given to the victim. But the fine depends on the ability of the perpetrator to pay, meaning the amount is often insufficient to cover medicinal costs. “That is where the government needs to come in,” said Sarode.
Need for Immediate Intervention by the Police
Until 2013, the law did not even have a section that dealt with acid attacks. The statistics regarding acid attacks too became available only after 2013. The statistics showed steady rise in reported cases. In 2012, 106 acid attacks had been reported in India, while the number swelled to 116 in 2013 and 349 in 2014.
Sarode said the police needs to react promptly if the preventive measures are to be successful. Khan, for example, had flagged the police twice when her eldest sister Najma and her husband Iqbal had threatened her. But the police did not interfere because it was “their family matter”.
Providing Security to the Acid Attack Survivors
Activists have argued for a security plan for acid attack survivors. The culprits often get bail, or are freed after serving their term of 10 or more years. One of Khan’s perpetrators, Iqbal, spent merely four months in jail, before being granted bail. Iqbal’s wife and son are still behind bars. But since his release, Khan said she has received insinuated threats and she fears for her four kids - the eldest daughter is 18, while the boys, triplets, are 13. She lives with them in her mother’s house. She separated from her husband long back. “The court has warned Iqbal against threatening us, and said he will be held responsible if anything happens to us,” she said. “But he sends intimidating messages through people we know.”
While it is imperative to address the rehabilitation process of acid attack survivors, the fundamental step of sensitising society needs to be taken simultaneously, believe activists. The society either sympathises, said Khan, or discriminates, but does not treat “us like normal human beings”. “People walk away when I board the train,” she said. “I feel like I am an untouchable.”
(The writer is special correspondent with LA Times. He can be reached at @parthpunter)
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