“I lost my mother when I was three and my father remarried. I didn’t know my step-mother’s anger would flare up into an acid attack on me,” said Roopa, 29, an acid attack survivor from Uttar Pradesh, who doesn’t live with her family anymore.

Acid attacks are often assumed to be driven by jilted lovers and rejected romantic advances, but the reality is much more complex, like in Roopa’s case. Roopa was only 15 when the attack happened. “This wasn’t the only time she tried to kill me—she also tried to choke me. When that didn’t work, she threw acid on me while I was asleep,” she said sternly.

An acid attack involves the use of sulfuric acid or “oil of vitriol,” and is hence also called vitriolage. Annual reports of the Acid Survivor Foundation say that 70 per cent victims of vitriolage in India are women.

“I never knew what an acid attack was until it happened to me. I’ve spent my whole life not feeling loved, and now I don’t even seek it,” Roopa said.

acid attack Seema’s picture from Aine tak ka safar by Nanki Singh.

Numbers from the National Crime Reporting Bureau (NCRB) show that incidences of acid attacks in India have been decreasing in the last five years, they were 244 in 2017 and fell to 124 in 2022.

Festive offer

“Then, in 2013, my friend Archana, also an acid attack survivor, introduced me to Chhanv,” said Roopa, one of the oldest employees at ‘Cafe Sheroes Hangout’ by Chhanv Foundation, a Non-Profit Organization working for the rehabilitation of acid attack survivors. The foundation provides employment to acid attack survivors via ‘Cafe Sheroes Hangout’ in Agra, Lucknow and Noida.

In Seema’s case, she wasn’t the intended victim; the attack was meant for her brother. “Some people were outside, expecting my brother to walk out. Instead, I came out, and they splashed boiling acid on my face,” she recalled. Initially, she thought the attacker, her brother’s friend, was teasing her with water. “One rivalry led to another, and that’s why I have a disfigured face.”

Unlike any other person battling grief, Seema chose to solve her problems herself. She ran away from home seeking treatment using money meant for snacks. With a smile on her face, Seema said, “We couldn’t afford my treatment, so running away seemed logical.”

acid attack Roopa(Right) and Julie(Left) at café Sheroes Hangout in Noida. (Express Photo)

Seema now embraces her strength as her true beauty. “I feel more beautiful now. My strength makes me beautiful, not my face,” she says. At 25, she is thrilled to be getting married on July 9, 2024.

While Seema has taken control of her life, 15-year-old Julie, also an acid attack survivor, still struggles. At four, Julie was attacked by her biological father, who mistook her for his ex-wife in the dark. “He poured acid on me instead of my mother and step-father,” she said.

Although Julie survived, her step-father succumbed to his injuries. Chhanv brought Julie from Uttar Pradesh’s Fatehpur to Noida. “When I saw other girls like me, a part of me felt normal,” she said. Julie loves mathematics and aspires to become a doctor.

“People in the West are alien to the concept of acid attacks and were perplexed by my photographs,” said Nanki Singh, who captured Roopa, Seema, Julie, and other Chhanv members in her photo collection. Aaina Tak Ka Safar, offering a glimpse into the world of acid attack survivors. Singh, who has worked closely with these women for four years, said, the name Aaina tak ka safar or The Journey to the Mirror has a very special significance because the girls have repeatedly told her how difficult it was for them to look at a mirror after their attacks.

West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh are the states having the highest number of acid attacks. Delhi tops metropolitan cities having the highest acid attack incidences in the last five years.

The numbers might distract us from the bigger picture as the availability of acid is still not controlled as it should be. The Supreme Court judgment of 2014 bars anyone from buying acid without an identity proof and only registered shops can sell it.

This however is far from reality as access to acid is still easy, as per experts.