( May 2, 2017, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) A two-year-old dalit child from Chhattisgarh succumbed to injuries in the burns ward of the Sion Hospital (a public hospital) in Mumbai on April 22. The shock of 35 per cent burns was just too much for her. She was given a Christian burial by the social workers who came forward to receive the body, as her family was too poor to meet the expenses. No newspaper reported this death. The kid’s mother also succumbed to injuries. They were not the primary targets of the ghastly incident that had taken place in a dalit basti in Bandra on April 14 — the day Christians mourned the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and dalits celebrated Ambedkar Jayanti. They were only “collateral damage”. The primary target was 18-year-old Reena (name changed), who had spurned the advances of a guy several times. The spurned suitor poured petrol on her as an act of revenge. When she felt the warm liquid dripping down her spine, Reena screamed “acid dala” and ran away before he could ignite her. With great alertness of mind, she managed to find some water and poured it on herself to wash away the petrol. But as she ran back to her hut, she saw her mother in flames and fainted. The mother, a 40-year-old dalit, Amravati Harijan, sitting outside her hut, bore the major brunt of the attack and suffered 95 per cent burns. Her younger daughter too became an accidental victim.
The neighbours rushed the three victims to the nearby Holy Family Hospital. After an agonising wait for a few hours, they were referred to Sion Hospital in the suburbs. As the hospital took a lot of time to sort out the admission formalities, Amravati was rushed to Masina Hospital in south Mumbai. All this travel was done in an ordinary tempo, not in an air-conditioned well-equipped ambulance. Admission into Masina required money and the family had none. So they ran helter-skelter collecting it. This was only the beginning. More money was required for medicines and other expenses. And it only increased without respite; after all, it was a private hospital. After assessing the damage, the hospital gave a rough estimate of Rs 18 lakhs as the cost of initial treatment, an amount far beyond the reach of Amravati or her family. A few NGOs offered to help, they even started a fundraising drive and also approached the government for medical assistance from the chief minister’s funds. But just when the funds were to be released, Amravati breathed her last on April 27. The hospital has refused to release her body until all dues are cleared. Reena is now left alone to cope with the guilt and the trauma.
The incident has raised many questions about the manner in which gender crimes are registered. It has also become evident that when it comes to the poor and the marginalised, well-intentioned measures can be so easily be flouted. Though the police recorded the incident of April 14, the meticulous planning of the accused to take revenge upon the family for ticking him off while he was stalking Reena for over a year did not find a mention. The family had approached the police but the accused, Deepak, was let off with a warning. Without this history, a gender crime becomes a simple case of homicide. Another glaring flaw is that though the three victims were doused with petrol, the police did not add the critical section — Section 326A of IPC, which was inserted in 2013 when the criminal law was amended after the Nirbhaya incident. This section addresses acid attack cases, but its wording is broad enough to include cases of burning. The explanation makes it very clear: “For the purposes of this section, ‘acid’ includes any substance which has acidic or corrosive character or burning nature, that is capable of causing bodily injury ….”
This is a serious lapse because the scheme for financial support to survivors of sexual assaults and acid attacks, Manodhairya, mentions the compensation that needs to be paid when these sections are mentioned in the FIR. Questions are being raised in official quarters about the decision to shift the patient from the public hospital into a private hospital. But here we have a very strong precedent. In the Shakti Mills gangrape case, the victim had admitted herself into the top-end Breach Candy Hospital. But since it was a high-profile case, there was no hesitation in shifting her to a VVIP room and meeting all her medical expenses. Can the State now shrug off its responsibility towards Amravati? There is also the responsibility of all private charitable hospitals that are duty bound to admit poor patients and reserve 10 per cent of beds for such cases. The scheme formulated by the Bombay high court in 2006 is flouted by all private hospitals. In an audit of 11 leading private charitable hospitals in the city, the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India has found that seven were wrongly billing poor patients and charging hefty deposits during admission.
The question that begs for an answer — does the State have a responsibility to protect the lives of its citizens? What avenues are left for citizens if the State fails in its obligation of providing basic support, emergency care and support to victims of gender crimes? Questions also need to be raised about the role of the media. Why did it not give due publicity for this ghastly incident? Is it because it was not a case of gangrape, or an acid attack? Does burning by petrol lacks sensational value? Is it because the 18-year-old did not become the victim and hence it was not sensational enough to report? Is it because the three lives that were affected did not merit media attention? Is it that the affected families were poor and not from the middle class? We need to understand why the media selectively covers incidents.
( The writer is a human rights lawyer and a columnist Deccan Chronicle, Chennai based daily newspaper)