Acid attack survivor now helps, counsels victims

Pragya Singh sustained burns after a relative threw acid on her when she was sleeping inside a train. She survived, and now runs a rehab foundation

Pragya’s foundation gets concessions from hospitals.

On April 30, 2006, a few days after her wedding, Pragya Singh was travelling alone to attend a campus placement event. The journey turned into a nightmare when a spurned lover, also a distant relative, came into her compartment around 2 am and threw acid on her.

She was in the hospital for three months and a half, and underwent multiple surgeries. She started losing vision in her left eye. Even after intensive treatment, doctors could not restore her left eye vision since the retina and optic nerve were completely damaged. Any other person might have given in to sorrow and despair but Pragya was made of sterner stuff.

“I realised that the reconstruction surgeries were never going to end,” she says. The problem is that burnt skin contracts a lot. Even if they correct one scar, the same contraction will come again after six months. Pragya felt she had to move on. She came to her husband in Bengaluru in April 2007 and stopped her surgeries soon after. “I started looking at building a career, starting a family and so on.”

The beginning...
During her treatment, and after that, she met some acid attack victims and began counselling them. She soon realised she was their best guide and that became her biggest motivation and soon set up the Atijeevan Foundation in 2013 to help burn victims lead a happier life.

How does it work?
“The biggest challenge was that many were not able to get surgeries done because they couldn’t afford them. Even the medication was too expensive for them,” says Pragya. Atijeevan Foundation now has a bunch of individual donors and some corporates who support treatment and sponsor surgeries.

Pragya guides victims to find a livelihood as well. “Till even two years back, nobody was ready to hire acid attack survivors. So I tried to nurture their micro-businesses, give them skill or vocational training and provide them with small jobs. Earning something gave them a lot of confidence,” she says.

She also helps them get married and has supported marriages of three acid attack survivors, with a fourth one coming up later this month. Atijeevan has some tie-ups with like-minded organisations. They are also the South India partner for Acid Survivors Foundation India.

“The relative was immediately booked under Sec 336 A of the IPC (endangering life or personal safety of others); that was the only law that could be used in such a situation in 2006. We fought the case for almost two years and he got four and a half years in jail. The prison term ended in December 2010. I don’t know where he is exactly,” says Pragya.
Atijeevan Foundation can be reached at atijeevanfoundation@gmail. com

What does the law say?
The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act was passed in December, 2016 and is now in force. It raised the number of disabilities from seven to 19, with acid attack victims being recognised as physically disabled.

They are now entitled to special provisions for education and occupation, and get three per cent reservation for jobs alongside sufferers of other disabilities earlier recognised. She says the Karnataka government has been giving compensation of up to Rs 2 lakh to acid attack survivors since 2007.

“But all acid attack survivors should be getting compensation of up to Rs 3 lakh. But the government is giving the revised compensation only to newer victims. The older ones
are not getting the Rs 3 lakh compensation,” she rues. However, she is happy that the Karnataka government decided to start giving a pension of Rs 3,000 to acid attack victims from 2018.

Huge numbers
Between 250 and 300 acid attacks are reported in India every year, according to Stop Acid Attacks, a non-profit group. In 2016, India recorded 300 attacks. Many attacks go unreported, so the actual number could exceed 1,000. Acid attacks are primarily directed towards women, who constitute 80 per cent of the victims. Causes include family disputes, refusal to marriage proposals, land or monetary disputes, domestic violence and suspicion of infidelity.

Cost of surgery
If it is done at a small or missionary hospital, it costs about Rs 40,000. The foundation has tied up with some hospitals which provide concessions. “An 'A+' hospital charges not less than Rs 1.2-1.5 lakh for an operation. But we get a concession. So it costs Rs 50,000-60,000,” says Pragya.

Deepika plays survivor Laxmi
Laxmi Agarwal, a survivor and now one of the most recognised faces in the fight against acid attacks, was signed on as a model by apparel brand 'Viva N Diva'. She says rehabilitation is most important since the attacker's aim is to kill a woman's aspiration to live a life of her choice. Filmmaker Meghna Gulzar is set to direct a film on Laxmi now. Deepika Padukone plays the lead, and the film which marks the actor's first foray into production. Other victims of acid attacks took part in a fashion show in Thane, on the outskirts of Mumbai, on International Women's Day last year.

Skin bank finds no takers
Pragya and her team have been trying to create awareness about the idea of a skin bank. “Just like how you donate your organs, you can also pledge to donate your skin after death. One skin donor can help save upto three burn patients,” she says. Donation involves no cuts and bleeding. People from the nearest skin bank visit the donor’s home and take a superficial layer of skin from the lower back and thigh. The whole process can be completed in 45 minutes, she says. The skin can be taken within six hours of death. But till date, the supply of donated skin is hardly two per cent compared to the supply.”

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