The drivers of a public transport bus and my taxi traded insults. When they ran out of words, the bus continued on its way and the taxi driver apologised. “Sorry, madam. It’s like this every morning. There are bridges being built all over the city that delay everyone. We get tension in rush hour.” Traffic delays, congestion, and the bad state of roads are sore subjects in the southern city of Salem, Tamil Nadu. It was while trying to prevent additional chaos that Piyush ‘Manush’ Sethia, a social and environmental activist, was arrested on July 8.
Sethia, the coordinator of Salem Citizens Forum, spearheads the restoration of many water bodies, such as the 58-acre Mookaneri and the 39-acre Ammapettai tanks. Water birds have colonised the wooded islands created by the de-silting operation. In the evenings, local people stroll along the bunds. Earlier, they’d held their noses closed against the stench. Citizens of Salem cleared these sites of tons of plastic, planted trees, and donated money to hire earth excavators. The forum exists only on Facebook and WhatsApp and is not registered. Neither does it have office bearers or a hierarchy. While residents of other cities demand the state restore their water bodies, the forum’s work has inspired similar public movements in Madurai, Dharmapuri, and Tiruchirapalli.
The group mobilised residents against the mining activities of NALCO, the Jindal group as well as Vedanta. “Besides environmental activities, we work for women and child rights – teaching children the difference between good and bad touch, organic farming, the revival of traditional arts, and sustainable development,” P. Vijayan, a core member of the group, told The Wire.
Lobbying for civic infrastructure while keeping the welfare of the city’s citizens foremost fits within the forum’s agenda. The railway line connecting Salem to Vriddhachalam bisects Salem city. Bretts Road, from the front gate of the District Collectorate, and Cherry Road that runs behind the administrative complex are two arterial but narrow roads connecting the northern and southern parts of the city. Until early July, traffic on these roads was one-way, one leading north and the other heading south. When trains ply, the two gates in this area called Mulvadi are closed, causing traffic to pile up. To ease this congestion, the railways and highways departments plan to build a 650-metre-long over-bridge on Cherry Road at a cost of Rs 102 crores.
Trouble began when the revenue department issued a circular in local newspapers of the impending construction on July 7. It also announced that Bretts Road would take traffic going both ways. This caused disquiet among the 53 people who own 82 properties along this road that are likely to be demolished for the project. They had no information on how much land they’d have to yield nor what they would be compensated. The properties include small tea shops as well as large glass-fronted stores.
Residents say work on other over-bridges in the city have been delayed and take a long time to complete, causing hardship to the public.
For example, Ananda bridge that connects Second Agraharam Road and Town Railway Station Road took six years to complete, says a Cherry Road property owner. “The authorities began building the bridge without acquiring land and then got stuck,” he says. “If you see the alignment now, it’s totally absurd. Instead of a straight approach, the bridge curves around to avoid a building. If they had acquired land first, they wouldn’t have faced this problem.” He didn’t want to be identified for fear of inviting the wrath of the authorities.
“For four years, we’ve been telling the authorities not to repeat the mistakes of Ananda bridge,” says 40-year-old Sethia, who prefers to go by the name of Manush. “We’re not against the construction of the Mulvadi bridge.”
The Salem Citizens Forum has two main demands. It wants the authorities to acquire land before they start construction of the bridge. Instead of letting traffic flow in both directions on a narrow road, it asks the administration to provide an alternate road.
“I showed them where they could easily use land belonging to the railways through which traffic can be diverted,” says Manush. He feels the authorities are deaf to his entreaties. The morning after the circular was published, Manush, volunteers from his group, and affected business owners met the District Revenue Officer, who is in charge of land acquisitions.
“He wouldn’t listen to us. He said he knew what he was doing and told us to mind our own business,” says the Cherry Road businessman. “They [officials] talk like they are kings. They have no empathy for common people. Piyush isn’t even personally affected by the project and still he supported our cause.”
Nothing came of the group’s meetings with the Deputy Commissioner of Police – Crime and Traffic and the Deputy Commissioner of Police – Law and Order. Attempts to meet the District Collector failed. Manush and others arrived at Mulvadi gate to find an earth-digger at work and a posse of policemen standing guard. “As a mark of protest, I got into the pit and I was immediately arrested with two of my associates,” says Manush.
He thought they would be taken into preventative custody. Instead, they were sent to judicial custody under sections 188, 341, 353, and 506(ii) of the Indian Penal Code. These charges relate to obstructing a public servant from carrying out his work, disobedience of order promulgated by a public servant, wrongful restraint, and criminal intimidation of a public servant.
“A senior engineer of the railways filed a complaint,” says S. Selvaraj, the Deputy Commissioner of Police – Law and Order. “On the basis of this complaint, we arrested him. We did our job. Preventing a public servant from performing his duty is against the law whoever they be. All problems should be solved by constitutional methods.”
What happened next in prison is under investigation. Manush alleges they were strip searched and beaten up by the chief warden, superintendent of prisons, and several others in the jailer’s room, out of sight of surveillance cameras. The three were held in solitary confinement in the high-security block. A week later, Manush’s two associates, Eesan Karthik and Muthuselvan, got conditional bail but the magistrate refused to set Manush free. On 13 July, Manush alleges the superintendent slapped him hard. He also says the prison authorities mounted a suicide watch, and he feared for his life.
News of the beatings trickled out more than a week later. Nearly 20 volunteers of the forum ran online campaigns to free him. Newspapers and magazines covered the case not only in the state but in national media.
After he was released on conditional bail on 21 July, Manush underwent a medical examination that revealed the fracture of a toe and oedema on the soles of his feet, where he was allegedly beaten with lathis. The Tamil Nadu State Human Rights Commission and the National Human Rights Commission have issued notices to the state. He’s also filed a case against the prison authorities that is scheduled for hearing on the 17 August.
Could Manush and the forum have protested in any other manner?
“We could have got a stay order on the 7th itself,” suggests the Cherry Road business-owner. “Who gives a stay order the same day?” counters Manush. “We had no time to lose. None of the affected people had even received notices. If they dig up the road and then someone gets a stay order, it would only inconvenience the public.”
“He’d have been arrested whatever he had done,” says M. Srinivasan, a senior member of the forum and an exporter of textiles. “It was pre-planned. The authorities were waiting for an opportunity and they got him. So many people are affected by us – factory owners, big honchos, corporates.”
Other members concur. Manush was forthright in his criticism of the functioning of the police. In June, Vinupriya, a 21-year-old woman, committed suicide after her morphed photograph was posted on Facebook. Her father claims they were made to run from office to office to get the photo removed, and the cyber cell police demanded a bribe. When nothing was done, the humiliated woman took her life. Manush held the police responsible for her death.
“I think it was a vindictive action because he was asking questions and holding people accountable across the board and not just the police.” says Radhika Rammohan, a well-wisher. “Activists being arrested during a protest is common. But denying him bail is unheard of. Beating an activist in prison is illegal and a human rights violation.”
“There’s no enmity between the administration and the forum,” says M. Tamilrajan, PA (General) to the District Collector.
Why did the administration start work immediately after issuing the circular, without sending notices to the affected people? Surely, it could have given them more time. “Who issued the circular? On July 7? Was it the railways? No, was it revenue?” he fumbled and returned to his paperwork, ending the interview. The proposed Mulvadi flyover is right in the Collectorate’s backyard.
The District Revenue Officer refused to give an audience unless authorised by the Collector. Efforts to get this permission didn’t succeed.
“I was sent to prison for 23 days for sedition in 2010,” says Manush. “Even then I wasn’t thrashed like this. I had a lot of faith in the police. That’s gone completely now. I used to take pride in my multi-tasking. But now all I think about all day is the beating. I’m still shocked by what happened.”
Manush alleges other members of his group are being harassed. One was threatened at a bus stop, a businessman was intimidated, another faces allegations of encroaching on public land. Many members left the forum’s Whatsapp group since the arrest fearing harassment, including the two activists who were arrested with him. “They’ll all come back as soon as this blows over,” Manush reassured another concerned member.
Not everyone is running scared. “Piyush has both viveham (wisdom) and veham (passion),” says Vijayan with admiration. “We older people have viveham but not his veham.”
“We’ll definitely fight this,” says the Cherry Road businessman. “It’s our hard-earned money at stake.”
The case raised Manush’s profile. Wherever he goes in Salem, strangers take selfies with him, shake his hands, and commend his work. A Salem-born resident of Germany on a visit to his hometown said he follows the activities of the forum online and was proud of its work. Even police constables stop him on the road to enquire about his health and the status of the case. “Earlier, our group was known locally,” says Manush. “Now we have national prominence. In that sense, it’s been good for us.”
Janaki Lenin is the author of My Husband and Other Animals. She lives in a forest with snake-man Rom Whitaker and tweets at @janakilenin.