The six months I spent in hospital in 2014 were terrifying, says Michael John (18), recollecting the many times he contemplated ending his life. He has since admitted to his family that the acid attack plunged him into depression, his biggest worry being how to face people.
On January 1, 2014, at 2.30 am, a man in his neighbourhood poured acid over John’s head. As the chemical streamed down his eyes, face, hands and legs, his flesh burnt immediately. Later, John became the first and only male in Maharashtra to receive compensation under the state government’s Manodhairya scheme. He’s also one of the only two victims in Mumbai who received compensation since the scheme’s inception. The other is a 17-year-old girl who lives in Gorai.
John was enjoying New Year’s eve celebrations with a group of friends near his house in Malad (West) when a gang of neighbourhood boys demanded a cigarette. “John’s refusal infuriated them. They were known to consume alcohol and have drugs near an imitation jewellery factory. They somehow entered the factory, got acid and poured it on John’s head,” says John Bosco, his brother-in-law.
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The factory had no guards. Of the three accused, one remains absconding, the other two are out on bail. The trial is under way at the Dindoshi sessions court.
For John, the ordeal had just begun. While he’s grateful for the prompt monetary compensation of Rs 3 lakh under the Manodhairya scheme, the other measures promised in the scheme were never offered, including a ‘trauma team’ to look after medical aid and counselling services. Additionally, a rehabilitation team was supposed to help provide employment opportunities. “No one from the government visited the hospitals, except one lady who came to fill forms,” John remembers.
At the civic-run Nair hospital, he underwent surgery on an eye and was discharged the next day. “The doctors were going on strike and they did not want any trouble,” John alleges. He was then taken to Malad’s Raksha Hospital.
So far, the family has spent Rs 2.5 lakh on surgeries for the eye, plastic surgery for his hands and for damaged skin. Multiple surgeries remain even as John’s bouts of depression continue.
Sitting with a cloth wrapped around his eyes and face, John says earlier he worked as a machine operator at a Malad paper factory on a monthly salary of Rs 10,000. Now, he just earns Rs 6,000 as a helper.
The acid melted his eyelids and left him without vision in one eye. “For six months after the accident, my eyes were always wide open. To sleep, I used to put a wet cloth on them,” he says. Seven months ago, he underwent a surgery for eyelid reconstruction. At present, his new eyelids are stitched close. “He is excited about getting the stitches removed,” says Bosco.
His head has bald patches from the acid burns. “He initially did not like going out of the house. But slowly he realised that he had to face the world. He is not yet married but that is not our major concern,” Bosco says.
The family is now borrowing money for the upcoming surgeries. As for counselling, his mother and brother are trying to keep him motivated.
Under the amended Section 357 C of the Indian Penal Code, all public and private hospitals are to provide free medical treatment for “victims of any offence covered under section 326A, 376, 376A, 376B, 376C, 376D or section 376E of the Indian Penal Code”, which includes victims of acid attack covered in 326A.
In John’s case, ignorance at the hospital, among police officials and family members, led to the family paying for the medical treatment themselves. Now, however, the family plans to approach the Women and Child Development department of the government for financial assistance. “But he is an adult now. I wonder if they’ll accept our plea,” Bosco says.
The Gorai-based acid attack victim, like John, too, suffered serious mental health issues alongside the physical injuries after her former boyfriend forced acid down her throat when she was just 16, in 2013.
“The Manodhairya scheme had just been launched, and in her case we realised that while there are provisions for external injuries, her case was unique as all the injuries were internal,” says Flavia Agnis, lawyer and founder of women’s legal aid organisation Majlis.
When her former boyfriend attacked her, she sustained injuries in her throat, lungs, face and neck. “But above all, she was mentally shaken by the incident,” says Persis Sidhva, a legal rights expert who handled the victim’s case. For weeks after the attack, the girl was unable to speak to anyone.
The girl recovered well following multiple medical procedures involving plastic surgery, but again no counselling team was made available. She is at present studying in junior college.
She did, however, receive Rs 3 lakh in compensation, besides free treatment at a civic-run hospital in the western suburbs.
Sidhwa adds that the cap of Rs 3 lakh under the scheme defies logic. A public interest litigation is being heard by the Bombay High Court, in which another victim has requested increased monetary compensation for medical treatment that could cost up to Rs 25 lakh. “If the compensation is increased under the Manodhairya scheme, it will help patients such as John,” says Sidhwa. The cap is currently Rs 3 lakh with an extra Rs 50,000 depending on the government-appointed committee’s discretion.
Last Friday, the Supreme Court directed private hospitals to provide free medical treatment to acid attack victims following a public interest litigation by a survivor. John now waits as his court case drags on and the accused roam free, while his family scrambles for financial help amid prayers that he stays mentally strong. The SC’s landmark ruling is a big ray of hope.