For acid attack survivors, 2019 elections emerge as platform to campaign for stronger laws, proper treatment and compensation
Stop Acid Attack, a group which has been creating awareness about acid attacks and pushing for stricter punishment for the perpetrators launched a country-wide campaign during the election to highlight the demands of acid attack survivors
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Delhi: Anu Mukherjee was a popular dancer in a Delhi Bar named Raajdoot. On 19 December 2004, she suffered a vicious acid attack by a jealous co-worker Meena Khan and her brother Qayoom Khan. The attack disfigured her face and she lost her eyes. The accused were arrested two days later and after a long trial were sentenced to five years rigorous imprisonment by a Delhi court on 19 January, 2011. But they managed to get bail, and soon after that started threatening Anu. Finally, the Delhi High Court sentenced both the accused to 10 years of imprisonment in 2016.
Anu’s 12-year-ordeal to get justice, her continuing struggle to get proper medical treatment for the injuries and a reasonable compensation to try and rebuild her life is not an isolated story. According to National Crime Records Bureau data, 283 cases of acid attacks were reported across the country in 2016 alone while the figures were 222 and 225 in 2015 and 2014, respectively, with 65 percent survivors being women and 35 percent being men. In every case, the survivors were largely left to fend for themselves.
Sheroes' Hangout in Lucknow is run by acid attack suvivors like Anshu Rajput, Roopali, Jaya Yadav and Kavita. 101Reporters
It was not until a decade ago that activists started looking at this phenomenon through a new lens, demanding this crime be brought under the purview of a separate legislation that recognises the heinousness of the act. This was the beginning of Stop Acid Attacks, whose campaign brought national attention to the issue and also resulted in the setting up of the iconic Sheroes' Hangout in Agra and Lucknow. The cafe is run by acid attack survivors, who are often abandoned by their families, and find it difficult to find gainful employment.
The activist group had also launched a country-wide campaign called ‘Jago Chunav Hai’ (Wake up, it’s Elections) to highlight the demands of acid attack survivors and present their demands to politicians.
Ashish Shukla, one of the founders of Stop Acid Attacks campaign, says that the team has been loud and proud about their demands, among which are subsidised education opportunities, better implementation of existing and specialised laws and more help with their medical treatment.
Unregulated sale of acid
Ignorance about the law among survivors and the indifferent attitude of the authorities in controlling the sale of acids have led to acid attacks ruining countless lives, many of them young women who had spurned the advances of a man.
Till 2013, there was no separate provision in the Indian Penal Code to charge those accused of acid attacks, or any rules restricting sale and purchase of acid. It took several protests in many parts of the country over the rising number of acid attacks that the government declared acid attacks a cognizable offence under Section 326 (A) of the Indian Penal Code with punishment up to 10 years. Later the same year, the Supreme Court ordered strict restrictions on the sale of acid in the country. The apex court guidelines made it mandatory for shop owners to acquire a license for selling acid and maintain records such as age and address proof of those who purchase acid. The SC order also said shopkeepers must record the reasons for purchase.
But the Supreme Court rules are flouted with impunity, according to Chandrahaas Mishra, an acid attack survivor and activist from Meerut.
"People sell acid openly on the streets of Meerut (Uttar Pradesh)," said Mishra, adding, "When I asked a vendor how strong the acid was, he opened the bottle cap and told me that it was very strong acid. We have informed the authorities about the open sale and purchase of acid but they have not taken any steps to curb it."
Stronger punishment for perpetrators
Survivors say acid attacks are worse than getting shot at as the former ruins their whole life. Just ask Mohini, who survived an acid attack by her jilted lover Rakesh on 6 November, 2005. Though a Delhi court had sentenced Rakesh to eight years in prison under Section 307 of the IPC for attempt to murder, Mohini says the legal system has badly let down survivors like her. "The culprit completed the punishment and is out of jail now. He has followed me many times and threatened me. So, what is the punishment worth?" she asks.
The long legal process to get justice is just as traumatic to the survivors as the attack itself.
“The judiciary is facing a huge manpower crunch,” said Sanjib Panigrahi, advocate on record in the Supreme Court.
“A shortage of courts, a lot of adjournments and the prosecution not being ready with the case all prolong the process,” he adds.
Senior advocate Anuja Kapoor, who has filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a special law for the acid attack survivors, said stricter laws are needed to curb this menace.
“Acid attack should come under heinous crime, it’s not just an assault,” she says.
“We talk about fast track courts but it is still a dream,” says Mishra.
“My case took more than seven years; the hearings have now ended and soon the quantum of punishment will be announced. During these years, the perpetrator, Chintu, was out on bail and used to threaten me. He also filed a case against me. It’s a time-consuming process and also takes a huge amount of money. The financial burden on top of the severe trauma and suffering that the survivor is going through breaks the victim’s willpower,” adds Mishra.
Healthcare remains nightmare for acid attack survivors
Two other serious issues acid attack survivors face is getting proper medical treatment for their injuries and adequate compensation. Over the years, survivors have staged several protests in Jantar Mantar in Delhi and elsewhere demanding special health care in government and private hospitals. But to little effect.
Anu who was admitted to AIIMS Delhi after the attack says that she didn't receive proper treatment at the government-run hospital
"I was admitted there for almost three months but the doctor hardly came to see me,” said Anu.
"My body was melting and stinking but doctors did not treat me with care. When we ask the government for compensation for treatment, they ask us to get admitted in government hospitals. But why should we go there when they can’t provide proper facilities?" asks Anu who has spent Rs 35 lakh so far on medical treatment and even though she lost her eyes in the attack, received just Rs 1.4 lakh as compensation in 2010.
"A doctor of a government hospital in Meerut told me that my eyes are 85 percent damaged and that I would not be able to see, but when I was shifted to a private hospital, they saved my eyes and now I can see properly," says Mishra. He has spent more than 30 lakhs in his treatment but, but unlike Anu, he hasn't received any compensation.
Kapoor informs that the Supreme Court has ordered government and private hospitals to provide initial treatment to acid attack survivor free of cost, yet many hospitals do not provide that.
"Private hospitals deny any knowledge of the order,” she says.
There is also the fact that hospitals, whether government or private, only provide treatment till there is a life risk to the acid attack survivor. Once a survivor's life is not at risk, hospitals stop treatment, and the patient has to make his or her own arrangement for the required follow up treatment.
Most survivors have to depend on charity to get them treated in a hospital, while some NGOs do crowd funding to help them.
Poor compensation for survivors
Compensation too is a hard and long process for the acid attack survivors and the amount varies from state to state. The Supreme Court in May 2018 approved a pan India compensation scheme for acid attack survivors. According to the scheme, survivors of acid attacks, in case of disfigurement of face, would get a minimum compensation of Rs 7 lakh, the upper limit being Rs 8 lakh. If the injury causes more than 50 per cent damage, a minimum compensation of Rs 5 lakh would be given with the maximum being Rs 8 lakh. But these amounts don’t even come close to the actual cost of treatment.
Nitin Yadav, manager of Sheroes Hangout in Lukcnow. 101Reporters
The law, however, is of little help to survivors. According to Kapoor, it's tiresome, lengthy and not implemented at all on the ground as most survivors don’t get this court-prescribed amount.
According to a study by TrustLaw, the legal services of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, out of the 55 cases they analysed, only nine survivors had received compensation. Survivors say there is a lot of paperwork involved in claiming compensation and officials often delay payment and ask them to come again and again or try to fob them off with payments of one or two lakhs.
Victims also say that some government officials demand a share of the compensation amount. "I was asked by a lawyer to pay 30 per cent of the compensation," said Mohini.
Men who survive acid attacks are denied compensation as officials say there is no provision for compensation to male survivors, said Mishra.
The authorities do not even give disability certificates to acid attack survivors which can help them get a job let alone provide assistance to cope with the psychological and social problems they face for the rest of their lives.
As acid attack victim Mohini said, many of her relatives had stopped coming to her house and do not invite her family for their functions.
"For them, I was responsible for this attack," said Mohini, adding, "Their perception is that if people in their circle get to know about this incident it would ruin their image. I have stopped going to public places, parties and other functions."
The author is a Delhi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters