It was 2006. Barely 12 days after her wedding, 23-year-old Pragya Singh was travelling in a train from her hometown, Varanasi, to Delhi, to pursue a career in apparel management.
At 2 AM, while she was sound asleep, a man, whose marriage proposal she had turned down, threw acid on her face.
Thirteen years later, Pragya, a social worker and mother of two beautiful daughters, has become a guardian angel for hundreds of acid attack survivors across India.
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Through her NGO, Atijeevan Foundation, she arranges free surgeries and non-surgical treatments for acid attack and burn victims. In the past six years, Pragya has funded crucial surgeries for over 250 acid attack survivors and has counselled many more to have a fresh start at life. Her NGO is supported mostly by donations from individual well-wishers as well as corporates.
Most of Atijeevan’s beneficiaries are survivors hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Delhi-NCR and West Bengal. From skin grafting to hair transplant and even critical reconstructive surgeries—Pragya tries to finance all crucial surgeries and medical cost for any survivor.
Pragya also conducts skill development workshops for survivors in their 30s or 40s, who have been dealing with depression and trauma for decades.
“Most of them had to endure the horrifying experience at the prime of their youth or even adolescence, so they retreated within the confines of their homes. Besides, their health does not permit them to opt for 9-5 office jobs. So, we provide them training on vocations that can be practised from home at their discretion. ” shares Pragya.
At the Atijeevan workshops, they learn to make decorative items, home furnishings, stitching clothes, knitting and similar crafts. “Some of them have even started their tailoring or handicrafts venture. We have also set up grocery kiosks for some survivors,” adds Pragya.
While women constitute the largest number of acid attack victims in India, men and children also bear the brunt of this appalling menace. As a matter of fact, around 20% of Atijeevan’s beneficiaries include men and children.
“I want to prove that an acid attack is not a death sentence. A person’s identity goes beyond their faces or physical appearances. This is why we chose the slogan, ‘I am not my face,'” says Pragya.
The Ordeal That Changed Her Life
Recalling that fateful night, Pragya says that she owes her life to her co-passenger who was a doctor.
“While the other passengers were dumbfounded, seeing my molten skin and burning clothes, the doctor wrapped her dupatta around me and kept on sprinkling water on my face. Then, I was rushed to the nearest hospital in Agra and later transferred to Delhi.”
When the police eventually arrested her attacker, they found out that he had stalked her for days since her wedding, stealthily waiting for a chance to commit the heinous crime.
In the years following the attack, Pragya would undergo fifteen surgeries. The incident had claimed the sight in one of her eyes while her other eye could be narrowly saved due to timely medical intervention.
Even after spending frantic hours in hospitals in Chennai, Bengaluru and Delhi, Pragya still had an inherently optimistic attitude towards life, which amazed her doctors. They began requesting her to motivate other victims, who were often on the verge of giving up on life.
Gradually, she became a counsellor for acid attack or burn survivors in hospitals. It was one of her doctors in Mumbai who prompted Pragya to officially start a forum for such patients.
“He told me that I was fortunate to be able to afford the series of expensive surgeries and treatment, while most survivors come from less privileged families. I felt that I have to be there for them,” Pragya shares.
With wholehearted support from her husband and her friends, Pragya raised Rs 30,000 for Rachna—her first beneficiary. In 2013, she officially launched the Atijeevan Foundation which has helped hundreds ever since. “I have to also thank surgeons and physicians throughout the country, who treat survivors at subsidised rates,” she says.
Deepmala, a teacher from Lucknow, was attacked with acid in 2014. For months, she lay helpless on the hospital bed and in excruciating pain. She almost lost vision in both her eyes.
“Pragya Didi came to me as a blessing. Her team got in touch with me on their own. They took me to Shankara Nethralaya in Chennai and arranged for my eye surgery, all expenses paid,” narrates Deepmala. Presently, after two long years, she has resumed teaching as her eyesight has improved.
Reshma from Siliguri, West Bengal has an equally moving story to share. Five years ago, a man she rejected did not think twice before throwing acid on her face. As her skin melted away, she also lost her vision completely.
“I became blind in a day. People on the streets would pass comments at me. Other customers at any restaurant would feel repelled to eat after seeing my face. My whole life was in shambles, while my attacker was out on bail in just four months,” Reshma narrates.
It was at such a helpless juncture that her friend recommended Pragya Singh’s name. Her NGO paid for Reshma’s otoplasty (ear surgery), hair transplant and a few other medical procedures.
“I underwent around 23-24 surgeries, but soon realised that merely improving my appearance would not change my life. So, I went to Pragya Didi in Bengaluru. With her guidance, I learnt spoken English and basic computer skills. Now I work at a posh hotel in Delhi. I have recently got married as well,” shares Reshma.
In March 2019, Pragya was honoured with the prestigious ‘Nari Shakti Purashkar’ by the President of India. The award has encouraged her to expand the boundaries of Atijeevan and welcome more and more survivors into a safe platform, where they can dream of a new life, beyond their recurring nightmares and trauma.
Pragya envisions a future where society will gracefully accept acid attack survivors with compassion.
“Instead of alienating or pitying them, people should accept them as human souls with dignity. They should not be identified as survivors, rather as bravehearts whose spirits cannot be thwarted at any cost,” she concludes.
If you would like to get in touch with Pragya, you can visit her Facebook page.
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(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)