Scarred lives, Token Gestures

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Photo: Arun Sehrawat
Photo: Arun Sehrawat

Dressed in a light-coloured salwar kameez, a purple sweater and a printed scarf around her head, 17-year-old Resham Fatma greets you with a self-assured smile. This Republic Day, Resham will participate in the parade on Rajpath as the recipient of the Bharat Award — the highest of the National Bravery Awards for children in India. The award has been instituted by the Indian Council for Child Welfare to give due recognition to children who distinguish themselves by performing outstanding deeds of bravery and meritorious service, and to inspire other children to emulate their example.

A Class XII student from Lucknow, Resham is being given the award for fighting for her personal safety. In February 2013, she was kidnapped by her mother’s cousin on her way to tuition classes. The man forced her into his car and asked her to marry him. “He threatened me with knives. When I refused to marry him, he poured a light yellow liquid over my head,” she recalls.

Resham didn’t know what the ­liquid was but when her skin started burning, she covered her eyes to keep it from dripping in. He then tried to slit Resham’s throat, but she managed to break free and jump out of the car. She immediately hailed an auto and headed straight for the police station. “I don’t know what gave me the strength to fight him off, at that moment,” she says.

There is a lot lined up during her one-week stay in the national capital, including receptions hosted by several dignitaries, such as President Pranab Mukherjee. An ias aspirant, Resham constantly reminds herself of her Board exams, scheduled next month.

Braving all odds Resham Fatma, 17
Braving all odds Resham Fatma, 17

But she is eagerly waiting for 24 January — the day she will receive the coveted award from Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a special function. She has a lot to say to him.

On 10 February 2015, it will be a year since Resham was attacked, yet the compensation from the government is nowhere in sight.

Supreme Court directives state that acid attack survivors should be given a compensation of 3 lakh to facilitate immediate medical attention and relief, of which 1 lakh is to be paid to the victim within 15 days of the incident and the rest “as expeditiously as possible and possibly within two months”.

Resham’s family has made 20 representations over the past 11 months to various authorities, including the president, the prime minister, the home minister and the Uttar Pradesh government, for compensation. They also have a six-month-old High Court order for compensation. But Resham is yet to receive a response from the government.

“I am thankful that my courage is being honoured but justice is still far away. I am deeply disappointed by the administration and the higher authorities. Why don’t they do their duty? I am only asking for what is my right. Koi bheekh thodi maang rahi hoon (Am I seeking alms)?” she says. Resham sustained 40 percent burns from the attack and has undergone multiple surgeries. In the absence of any support from the government, Resham’s uncle Irfan Siddiqui has spent over 5 lakh on her treatment and an additional 1.5 lakh on hiring lawyers.

The criminal case had an unexpected end, after the accused committed suicide in prison. But Siddiqui remains apprehensive of the judicial process. “The way the case had proceeded, until then, it looked like it would drag on for years. I could not trust the public prosecutor. Although the accused was behind bars, the police took eight months to file charges and files went missing from the court,” he says.

Although Resham was initially rushed to a government hospital in Lucknow, she was moved to a private facility within a day. “The burns ward in the government hospital was unhygienic. People would walk in with their shoes and eat out of their tiffins despite being surrounded by burns patients. There was a woman who had sustained severe burns next to me. She was crying out in pain all night, but nobody came for her,” she recounts in horror. Within the next 24 hours, Resham’s infection became worse.

The next day, she was moved to a private hospital and has been undergoing regular treatment. “I was lucky that my family could afford treatment. What about those who cannot?” she asks.

In Bihar, the wait for justice has gone on for over two years for Chanchal and Sonam Paswan. In 2012, the sisters were attacked after Chanchal turned down the advances of a man who had been harassing her for a while. The sisters were asleep on their terrace when acid was thrown on them. The attack left Chanchal blind and completely disfigured her face, leaving her lips welded. She also has difficulty breathing. Sonam sustained burns on her neck, back and hands.

More than two years after the incident, the sisters are yet to receive any compensation from the government. Their father, Shailesh Paswan, who works as a daily wage labourer, had to borrow money and depend on the generosity of others to pay for his daughters’ treatment. When they were attacked, Chanchal was 19 and Sonam was 16.

In the past two years, Paswan has spent over 10 lakh on their treatment. Although non-profit organisations and other donors have raised approximately
5 lakh so far, Paswan, who earns 6,000 a month, has footed the rest of the medical bills on his own.

After the attack, Chanchal had to discontinue her ba studies due to her extensive medical treatment. She has already undergone four surgeries and has over five more lined up. But she wants to return to college, soon. While the accused is out on bail, the Paswans have a long battle ahead. Shailesh says that the family of the accused has been trying to “work out some sort of arrangement”.

He says, “Nothing can bring back what my girls have lost and the perpetrator must pay for his deed. There is no room for compromise.” To him, the biggest challenge that lies ahead for his daughters is finding jobs and being able to support themselves.

This year, Laxmi’s case enters its ninth year of litigation. She was attacked in 2005 in New Delhi’s Khan Market by a duo. The perpetrators were sentenced to five and 10 years’ imprisonment respectively. A decade later, Laxmi’s struggle continues. Her fight led to the July 2013 Supreme Court directive, which imposed stringent restrictions on the sale of acid, pulled up the state governments for not providing compensation to survivors and increased the compensation amount to
3 lakh.

The court made it mandatory for the district administration, across the country, to monitor and regulate the sale of acid in the open market.

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Wait for justiceThe acid attack left Chanchal blind and disfigured. She also has difficulty breathing, Photo: Tehelka Archives

Although many state governments are yet to respond to the court’s orders, Laxmi says that the apex court’s order restored her faith in the judiciary.

In the course of her prolonged fight, she met other acid attack survivors and became a member of Stop Acid Attacks, a support network for acid attack survivors. “Medical, financial, emotional, as well as psychological support are crucial for acid attack survivors. I have been able to stand up on my feet again only with the support of family and friends,” she says. The network helps survivors find a source of income and runs a cafe and a boutique in Agra. Both were set up with the help of crowd-funded campaigns.

Like Resham, Chanchal and Laxmi, several cases of survivors have come to the fore in the past. However, it was only after the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013 that an acid attack was recognised as a specific offence, with a minimum punishment of 10 years, extendable to life imprisonment and fine.

Until then, acid attacks were registered under the broad category of crimes that caused “grievous harm”. The total number of acid attack survivors in the country is still unknown. Over the years, there have been several reports indicating increasing incidence of acid attacks, reiterating the need to set up mechanisms to support survivors.

In 2002, a study conducted by the Cornell Law School indicated that India, along with Bangladesh and Cambodia, has the highest incidence of acid attacks in the world. In 2008, the National Commission for Women (ncw) drafted the Prevention of Offences (by acids), 2008, Bill, which pushed for treating acid attacks as a heinous offence and had provision for relief and rehabilitation of acid attack victims. It also proposed constituting a Criminal Injuries Compensation and Rehabilitation Board. However, the board is yet to see the light of day.

In 2009, a Law Commission report drew attention to an increasing trend in acid-related violence across India. It recommended that appropriate authorities should ensure proper medical, psychological and legal assistance to survivors and issue directions for their rehabilitation.

The Supreme Court’s directives in Laxmi’s case came within months of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013. But not much has changed on the ground, says Alok Dixit, a former journalist, who started Stop Acid Attacks.

“We filed rtis on the progress made on the regulation of sale of acid in Delhi, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh. All of them drew either no or inadequate responses,” says Dixit. “There is an urgent need to implement the Supreme Court guidelines and create a fund for compensation and rehabilitation of acid attack survivors. Even when I was heading the ncw, there was a paucity of funds. We only had funds to create awareness,” says former ncw chairperson Mamata Sharma.

Last month, the Ministry of Home Affairs said that it will take a number of steps to strengthen the legal and administrative framework to check acid attacks and devise a mechanism to provide compensation and rehabilitation to survivors. The announcement came within days of two back-to-back acid attacks in the Capital, and a year and a half after the Supreme Court directive.

A ministry release said that a Central Victim Compensation Fund is proposed to be set up by the mha to ensure treatment of acid attack victims. It also said that the ministry proposed to make suitable amendments to ensure speedy trial, regulation of acid sales and take steps to rehabilitate victims.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 66 acid attacks in 2013. However, according to data collected by Stop Acid Attacks, based on incidents reported in the media, there were 160 acid attacks in 2013 and 136 in 2014. The ncrb is yet to release the data for 2014. In the first 20 days of the New Year, 15 cases of acid violence have already been reported from across the country. While the mha’s proposal sounds promising, it awaits consultation, planning and approval. And with no set deadline for its implementation, it exists only on paper.

Until the states regulate the sale of acid, lives will continue to be in danger. For survivors, it is already too late.

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