Fighting back against an acid attack in Delhi
As I travel around India with my colleague Ashok Tripathi, we are introduced to many people and told many stories, some of them shocking and beyond belief. This short story is about 30-year-old Kavita Bisht, one of the most inspirational people I have ever met and who has a shocking tale to tell about an acid attack made on her at the age of eighteen.
In India acid attacks happen to about 1,000 women each year. Having acid thrown in your face leaves you both physically and mentally scared. Acid can result in severe burning which often, as in the case of Kavita, results in the loss of sight, disfigurement, and if the acid gets into the throat, it can cause so much damage that it results in death. Most acid attacks occur to women from the lower classes and, if plastic surgery is required, it can cost far more money than they ever could afford.
Kavita was born on 8th October 1989 in Uttrakhand State in the small village of Karnal in the area of Bagwali Pokhar, close to Ranikhet and the beautiful Sumeshwar Valley. Karnal is a typical Indian village with almost no facilities at all. Kavita’s father is Deewan Singh Bisht. She was the second of four children. Prema was her the elder sister, Mahoj her younger brother and Kiran her younger sister. The family was very poor, with their only source of income being through her father’s job as a conductor in Uttrakhand Parivahan Nigam.
Being so poor, with 6 mouths to feed, it soon became obvious to Kavita’s Mother, Deepa Bisht, that she should have to get a job herself to support the family income. She started to work beside the river collecting silt for domestic construction and carrying heavy loads to the building site. She broke stones, converting them to chippings and taking them to the building sites. She also collected fertiliser for various people which she used to spread out on the fields for growing crops. For this hard, manual labour, she earned 30 rupees a day, equivalent to £2.50.
Prema was of a marrying age and her father took out a loan to pay for her wedding. Hoping this would lessen his problems, he was horrified when he lost his job. At the same time, Prema developed a serious kidney infection from which she died. Deepa, the mother, continued working but only earned enough for 2 meagre meals a day for the family. Worse still, Kavita’s father began to drink heavily, and when drunk, fought with his wife.
Sadly, all this affected Kavita’s education and she was forced to drop out of school. She worked as a farm labourer, and like her mother, earned 30 rupees a day. But she was a beautiful talented girl and loved to paint, sew, cook and play games. She even looked after an old lady and gave her daily massages. She was full of potential. When Kavita was 18, her cousin came to visit. She offered to take Kavita to Delhi, three days’ travel away, to help her find a job.
Even though very frightened of leaving her family behind, Kavita decided to take up the offer of help and go to Delhi. She took with her only 1,000 rupees, less than ten pounds. Her cousin allowed Kavita to stay with her in an area called Noyda in the town of Ghaziabad in the suburbs of Delhi. The place is a slum with open drains and broken roads which flood in the monsoon rains. The poorest of the poor live there.
Despite the offer of accommodation, Kavita’s cousin paid her no attention didn’t help her to find a job. Kavita’s money soon dwindled away. Her elderly landlord saw her in a distressed state and asked her what the problem was. She explained what had happened to her and he promised to help. His son took her around the small industries until they found her a job with a company she liked. The company was making safety belts for cars and paid 4,800 rupees a month, (£48) and, if she did overtime, she could earn 8,000 rupees, approximately £80.
Kavita started work. Worried about the family back in Karnal, she immediately began to work overtime, 16 hours each day so she could send money to her mother. The lack of good food and rest affected Kavita’s health and she then caught typhoid and pneumonia and was ill for a long time. Her manager got to hear about her illness and asked Kavita to tell him her story and why she was working so hard. He was very impressed by her story but when she recovered, he made her reduce her hours by only doing overtime on alternate days. She began to get stronger and when totally fit, worked as hard as anyone in the factory.
While walking to and from her work a young man called Jagdish began to follow her. Kavita did not know he was pursuing her and was taken aback when one of her colleagues brought her a message from him which said, “I like you a lot and want to marry you!” He began to do this daily, but Kavita always ignored him. At Christmas he sent her a present which she returned. Jagdish began to get angry and bolder.
One day when walking home, Jagdish approached her and took a firm hold of Kavita’s hand. She was afraid and asked him what he wanted. Getting angry he said, “Do I look mad, don’t you understand I want to marry you”. She got very distressed and began to cry. Jagdish got more and more angry and Kavita sunk to the ground. To get rid of him she finally said, “I don’t want to marry you, but if you want to marry me you had better go and talk to my family,” knowing full well her parents would not let him marry her. He let her go and she ran back to her apartment.
Following this incident, Kavita’s health failed again through sleepless nights and worry. She took more time off work but returned the next month. As she was walking home with friends Jagdish approached her again. He stopped her and grabbed hold of her hands, trying to talk to her. She managed to get away, but he sent a message to her cousin’s phone, saying “Tell her if she is not ready to marry me then I will disfigure her face so badly that no one will ever marry her.”
Kavita’s Manager heard about this and, having talked to Kavita, became very worried because such threats in Delhi must be taken very seriously. He advised her to go to the Police, but as she had no visible evidence, even though the Police sympathised with her, they said nothing could be done. Asking her cousin for help, Kavita was surprised when she discovered her cousin was still in touch with Jagdish by phone but wouldn’t give her his number so she could inform the Police.
After being paid that month, Kavita decided she must return home. Fate had other ideas however. Because her leg was injured in an auto-rickshaw accident, she was taking the bus to and from work. Just after 5.30am one morning, Kavita was standing in the bus queue when she saw two people on a motorbike, wearing crash helmets and disguised in sheets. They were approaching slowly. As they got closer the pillion rider took out from under the sheet a mug which we all now know was full of acid. As they passed Kavita the man threw the acid straight into her face and then they accelerated away.
Kavita ended up on the ground writhing in pain until an old man she knew came and called a rickshaw which took her to the nearest hospital. The hospital was the first of several that turned her away, saying they couldn’t help her! Her work manager discovered what had happened and sent the company ambulance to pick her up. She was taken to the ITU department at Sadarjan Hospital. Kavita was unconscious for 8 days!
Kavita was visited by the Police who took a formal statement and decided to prosecute Jagdish. She spent a month in ICU, then a further three months in the hospital undergoing treatment. During this time, she discovered she could not see out of either of her eyes.
She was then sent to Aiims Hospital in Nyoda for further treatment for her eyes. Here the hospital staff decided they had to attend to her nose first which was being burnt away, exposing the bone. Kavita was then moved to the Kailash Hospital, also in Nyoda, and back to Aiims Hospital where the doctors told her that they would be able to open her eyes again as they were only stuck down. But, after many delays, and nothing being done to her eyes, they eventually became permanently damaged and Kavita became blind. She believes that if her eyes had been operated on as a priority, she may be able to see today!
When Jagdish’s family learned that he was to be taken to court for the acid attack on Kavita, they paid a visit to her family. They offered Kavita’s father 4 Lacks, about £4,000 if, when in court, Kavita did not identify their son as the attacker. Jagdish’s family also said that if Kavita’s family didn’t comply, they would all have acid thrown at them. When the case was heard in court, even though she wanted to identify Jagdish, Kavita dutifully said “no” to protect her family when asked to identify the man who assaulted her. The case was thrown out of court! Her father took the money and paid off the loan he had taken for his elder daughter’s marriage and Kavita received nothing.
On returning to the village, Kavita was abused and taunted by the local people because they said she was a burden to her family and would never get married. She was so distressed that she destroyed all the certificates and letters of congratulations she received at school. She then tried to commit suicide.
Shortly afterwards, Kavita was invited by D. K. Joshi, to attend the Drishti Heen Training School for the Blind in Almora. Wanting to find a way of getting back on her feet, she accepted a place there. Mr Joshi himself was blind, and together with others they motivated Kavita to begin to look for ways to recover from her ordeal and to restore some dignity to her life. The training school produced a local magazine and in it they told Kavita’s story. This was picked up by a Mr Pandey in Mumbai who volunteered to pay for Kavita to have further treatment. She then went to Dehradun where she attended the National Institute for the Visually Handicapped. There she learnt how to use a computer, to write short hand, and to make candles and envelopes. She found continued support from many other people here, who were impressed with her ability to fight and not give up. Eventually, she went to Haldwani to do social work and whilst here even managed to get her father his job back.
The Uttrakhand Government also recognised Kavita’s fighting spirit and made her a Brand Ambassador for women in Uttrakhand as well as a voice of Women’s Empowerment in the State. She has since received several other awards including the State Woman’s Honour 2014/2015.
I met Kavita at Montessori School in Pant Naga where Lotus Flower Trust is planning to extend the local school. I immediately saw what a special person she is but was concerned to learn she was depressed, unhappy with her current situation, didn’t have much money and lacked a loving home. With me at the school were colleagues Ashok Tripathi and Sandeep Rawat, the latter of the JSR Residential School for Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities funded by the Lotus Flower Trust. Kavita had been to JSR and had been made very welcome. We have invited Kavita and her mother to live at JSR and help look after the children. We are currently looking for ways to fund this. She also wants to continue her education so that eventually she will be able to earn a living.
There is no doubt in my mind that given the opportunity, Kavita will go on to make the best of her life. She will never get her sight back, though we will take her to see eye specialists in Delhi for possible cosmetic surgery. But with her obvious determination to succeed she will continue to be an example to us all. We are so glad she has found a loving home at last at our JSR Residential School and will be an inspiration to many of our children here.
John Hunt CEO the Lotus Flower Trust UK