NEW DELHI: On September 4, a major private hospital in the city allegedly denied treatment to an acid attack survivor. 22 years old, she was forced to drink acid by her elder brother’s wife.

Shaheen Malik, national coordinator of the Human Rights Law Network’s Campaign Against Acid Attack, told The Citizen that the hospital was reluctant to treat the survivor when they realised her status as a “free patient”.

“From 12 pm to 5 in the evening, we kept requesting them to at least give her a bed to lie down. Give her first aid at least. They didn’t give her a single injection. They didn’t even give her any fluids. Supreme Court guidelines state that full free medical treatment must be given to victims of acid attack.”

India records one of the highest numbers of acid attacks in the world, and continues to grapple with the challenging prospect of providing justice to survivors. Around 300 such attacks were reported in 2016, according to the Acid Survivor’s Trust International, while the National Crime Records Bureau recorded 283 such crimes.

Unofficially, however, the number is said to exceed 1,000 acid attacks per year.

A slew of legislations and judgments have been passed over the years to simplify the treatment and compensation process for acid attack survivors. However, theirs is a lifelong struggle. Apart from the uncomparable physical, psychological and emotional distress caused by the attack itself, the hard journey to justice exposes survivors to a system that is negligent and often complicit.

Gulnaz Khan, whom an unknown assailant attacked when she was 18, reported her experience with a government hospital where she contracted a number of infections. Though it has been many years, she says the government has yet to give the additional compensation awarded to her.

Another survivor, Mohini, says the police told her to retract her complaint against the local man who had attacked her. He had begun threatening her after his release from jail. Police personnel told Mohini that the accused was angry due to his recent stint behind bars, but he would probably not do anything.

“The way he was speaking wasn’t right. From what he said, it seemed like only when another incident happened would they take action,” said Mohini.

Through the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, acid attacks are now recognised as a penal offence under Section 326A of the Indian Penal Code. The insertion of Section 357C in the Code of Criminal Procedure mandates all government and private hospitals to provide treatment to acid attack survivors free of cost. But as survivors’ accounts attest, this rarely translates to reality.

In the recent incident that took place in New Delhi, the survivor was transferred to a renowned private hospital when she developed an infection after undergoing major surgery at a public hospital.

According to Malik, the private hospital first asked them to pay the registration fees before they could admit the patient. On being told the survivor was a free patient by law, their attitude changed, and Malik noticed a marked reluctance from doctors to treat the patient.

Finally, she said, around 6 pm the hospital returned the patient’s papers, asking all those present to take her back.

Malik told The Citizen that she has often had to beg the private hospital in question to admit patients. “All the corporate private hospitals work as a business… So if this patient would go there free of cost, it means a loss for the hospital of 25-30 lakhs,” she said.

Further, Malik claimed that survivors are not given the importance that a doctor-patient relationship demands. A “lack of sensitisation” among the police, judicial and hospital staff is the primary cause of mistreatment and faulty implementation, in Malik’s opinion.

“Even in this case, the police were unwilling to file an FIR despite having recorded the survivor’s statement,” she said.

HRLN has moved the Delhi High Court regarding the case. According to Malik, no one was present on behalf of the private hospital at the hearing. HRLN has requested that the patient be given full and free treatment at the same private hospital. Malik emphasised that if the patient’s health takes a turn for the worse meanwhile, responsibility will lie with the private hospital in question.

For Gulnaz Khan, it was a government hospital that failed to provide adequate care. After being attacked, she was rushed to a private hospital. Unable to bear the high cost of treatment, she was shifted to a government hospital, which at first refused to admit her saying she was too “serious” a patient to treat. It was only after contacting her local MLA that she was admitted.

With 50% burns on her body, Khan was suffering from a number of infections. Being given a bed in a room with two other patients only aggravated her condition. In preparation for surgery she was told to use a bathroom meant for 15-20 patients, causing her to contract further infections and threatening her delicate state of health.

After three months’ treatment, she requested the doctors for a neck surgery as she was unable to move her neck and found it extremely difficult to sleep. The doctor allegedly refused, stating that nothing else could be done and she would have to live with the remaining immobility.

“They told me this and I cried a lot thinking if this doesn’t heal, how will I live like this?” she told The Citizen. Khan finally managed to get the surgery done from a private hospital in Dehradun. She was satisfied with the treatment she received there.

Apart from guaranteeing free treatment, the Supreme Court has also ordered that victims of acid attack be given compensation of at least Rs.3 lakhs. But Khan has still not received the full compensation due to her. Her case has been pending for three years.

Mohini, on the other hand, reported a positive experience with the public and private hospitals she went to for treatment. But her demand for justice brought her into conflict with the police.

Mohini was being continually harassed by a local man before the physical assault took place. Though the accused apologised after she complained to the police, he later attacked her in a bid to exact revenge.

During her treatment Mohini had minimal interaction with the police. It was after she had settled into a new life, with a job and family, that the recently released assailant began threatening her yet again. Mohini filed another police complaint, hoping the accused would be caught before long.

Instead, a police constable visited her at home and requested her to retract her complaint. She says the police told her it would be difficult to locate the accused after his release, and that some of the “mistake” for the attack lay with her too.

Mohini says she directly requested the District Commissioner of Police to take action. According to her, the policewoman in charge of her case was not too pleased with this decision.

“I told them if he attacks me again, what’s the worst he can do? He has ruined my face, worse comes to worst he will kill me. But now I am not alone, I have a family. Tomorrow if he does something to my husband or my small child, will you take the guarantee for them?”

It was only after Mohini made concerted efforts to get the protection due to her that police found the accused and made him sign a restraining order. “The police just think, this is our work which we’ll have to do. They have no emotions regarding this,” Mohini told The Citizen.

Meanwhile, corrosive acids continue to easily be available for sale. A 2013 court order regulating the sale of acids, passed during the case of acid attack survivor turned activist Laxmi Agarwal, has done little to stem the flow.

HRLN conducted a survey on acid sale across Delhi last month. According to Shaheen Malik, “Not a single person from our 11 teams was asked for photo identification as the law requires. If we try to assess the ground reality, it is zero… If we file an RTI, they will say there is no record.”

So does the passing of orders only serve to lull us into a false sense of security? For survivors of this gendered form of violence, acid attacks don’t end with the immediate agony, but stretch into the hard task of dealing with an inept and uncaring system. The scars last a lifetime.

Cover photo: Still from the documentary 'Make Love Not Scars'