The last thing Renu Sharma saw was her 37-year-old tenant, Yashpal, standing a short distance away from her with a mug in his hand. The next minute, she began to scream in pain as the skin on her face, neck, chest and hands melted. Renu, then 19, was blinded in an acid attack by Yashpal, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2007.
Now 29, Renu is the first acid attack victim who is set to get a government job, after the Delhi High Court on Friday directed the Delhi government to give her one. The court asked the government to give her a job close to her Shahdara residence in east Delhi, besides free medical treatment at a government hospital.
Last year, she had met Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, along with two others, seeking government jobs for 35 acid attack survivors in the capital. They were promised employment but nothing has happened so far, she says. She approached the court earlier this year, seeking compensation of Rs 50 lakh for her medical expenses and a job.
Renu is happy about the prospect of working again after a decade. She recounts how well her dairy business was doing before the attack changed everything. “My mother died of a hemorrhage when I was 11. My father, who worked in the Railways, had to look after me and my three siblings. When I turned 13, I decided to stop studying and help run the house. As we had five buffaloes, we began a dairy business that I took charge of. We would earn close to Rs 30,000 a month,” she says.
Yashpal, from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, turned up at their home in 2006 and asked for a room on rent. The family rented out one of the three rooms in the dairy to him. Yashpal also began buying milk from Renu.
While Renu says Yashpal initially paid his bills and rent on time, he began to default on payments within six months. “My father gave him a month to pay the dues but Yashpal did not do so,” she says.
Her brother, Rahul, and her father, Rajveer, asked Yashpal to vacate the room. He asked for a few days’ time. Three days later, Yashpal turned up at the dairy, asking for Rajveer or Rahul. She told him they were not home. “I even asked him if he needed water because he was holding a mug. I did not know that my life was going to change forever in a few minutes,” she says.
Since that day, Renu has undergone 15 surgeries in hospitals across the country, with her medical bills running into lakhs. Her father had to sell the dairy and apply for loans to pay for her treatment. Their house had to be mortgaged as well. Talking about the man who attacked her, she says, “He is in prison, but he is eating and living normally. I am shackled to my blindness.”
One of the buffaloes, which also suffered burns during the attack, died a few days after the incident while the rest were sold at half their price. “My family thought I would die as well. My father took care of the treatment while my sister, Rajni, took care of me. I couldn’t move properly for a year. There was no legal help or compensation from the government, save for the Rs 3 lakh it gave all acid attack survivors last year,” says Renu.
She adds, “With the money the government will now give me, I plan to undergo more surgeries as I cannot hear in one ear. I can bear any amount of pain as long as my sight is restored.”
Renu underwent many surgeries, including one in Hyderabad in 2014, to get her sight back. “If one has eyes, one can see and do just about anything. But without them, I can’t move freely even if all the other body parts are functional.”
Despite the hardship, Renu has managed to take care of her siblings and support her father.
“I had slipped into depression but my siblings helped me get back on my feet. I can now find my way around the house… I wash utensils and do some cleaning. I listen to the TV because I have so much time. I only step out of home to go to the hospital,” she says.
For Renu, work is her only escape from a world of darkness. She hopes the government will give her a job as a telephone operator.