Laxmi Aggarwal, 30, the acid-attack survivor who won hearts with her courage and poise, in circumstances that would have seen many crumble, and was one of the winners of the US State Department’s International Women of Courage Award in 2014 (First Lady, Michelle Obama presented it), is now without a job and may soon be without a home.
That India’s best-known acid attack survivor is finding it difficult to get by may surprise many, but activists say it highlights the plight of acid attack survivors in general. In 2005, acid was thrown on Aggarwal by a stalker (the story of many acid attack victims in India).
Today, Aggarwal is facing possible eviction from her two-room flat in east Delhi’s Laxmi Nagar because she can’t afford the rent. “People believe that I must be well-off since I received so many awards, walked the ramps, gave talks – but I have no money to meet even my basic needs,” she said. Aggarwal has been without a job for a year.
Four years ago, her life seemed the perfect happily-ever-after story. She and her partner, Alok Dixit, the founder of the Stop Acid Attack campaign, were expecting a child. The couple, in the news for their conscious decision to live-in and not marry , had also co-founded an NGO, Chhanv Foundation.
Soon after the daughter was born, though, the two separated on account of some differences. That was three years ago.
Aggarwal had custody. She also had a job — a director of the NGO, for which she was paid a honorarium of Rs 10,000 a month. That stopped last year when she quit, again on account of differences with Dixit, who admits he has not been able to provide any financial assistance to her or the child.
“I have no money. I just don’t. You can check my bank account and it doesn’t even have Rs 5000. This is how we activists live. I don’t have a regular job and all the money that my NGO gets is spent in taking care of acid attack survivors,” says Dixit, who also co-owns two cafes under the brand name Sheroes, in Agra and Lucknow, which operate on the ‘pay-as-you-please’ mode for customers.
With her savings depleted and the landlord wanting to increase the rent, Aggarwal has been looking for a house. It’s not easy, she says. Potential landlords, she adds, often say “ they don’t want their kids to get scared by my disfigured face”.
Aggarwal is also looking for a job. “I am educated till the 10th standard, but am a trained beautician and can communicate well. But my face becomes a hurdle when I ask for any job at any beauty parlour, as they say customers will get scared of my looks. I applied at a call centre and told them that the customers wouldn’t see my face, but they replied that ‘to get a job, I need to have a face to begin with’.”
Activists say that Aggarwal’s situation is hardly unique. According to them, the close- to-500 acid attack survivors in India get sympathy, but little monetary help. “There is so much money that gets spent on multiple corrective surgeries. Laxmi received Rs 3 lakh in compensation from the government after a Supreme Court order, but much more went in her surgeries, and the pregnancy that followed. She got a lot of recognition when she got the award from Michelle Obama, but her award money was not enough. In India, people are willing to give awards, not money,” says Anurag Chauhan, founder of the NGO Humans for Humanity.
The acid attack survivor hosted a few episodes of a TV show, and walked the ramp at London Fashion Week in 2016. “The channel paid me Rs 38,000 for a few episodes. I felt appreciated, as they chose me over pretty anchors. I never got any payment at London Fashion Week, though. I do get invites to walk the ramp for Delhi designers but since there is no payment involved, I have stopped taking part in shows. I have a child to take care of and I need a permanent source of livelihood,” says Aggarwal.
Aarti Surendranath, a former model and actor who had invited Laxmi to be a part of a panel discussion ‘Utsahati’ organised by the IMC Ladies’ Wing at St Regis in Mumbai, said: “I had read about the horrific attack and somewhere in my heart, I felt connected to her. Her future is very very bleak. She constantly lives in fear and panic as there’s no security for her or her daughter’s future. While it’s the philanthropic responsibility of all individuals in the society, the government must take concrete steps to help such individuals”.