Subhasri’s death on the roads in Chennai raised a hue of necessary proportions and even the mighty judiciary showed its concern. The Chennai City Police chief, AK Viswanathan, we heard was summoned and also the officials from the City Corporation. The Madras High Court ordered that the compensation to Subhasri’s family ought to be recovered from the errant officials who let hoardings be erected and remain there before one of it fell and killed the young girl.
And the Chennai Corporation, we are informed, has since removed as many as 3,400 such hoardings in the city alone.
We are also told that the law is taking its course at least after the court intervened once again and C Jayagopal, an AIADMK functionary, has been booked under the law — The Tamil Nadu Open Places (Prevention of Disfigurement) Act, 1959. We also know that Jayagopal, who had erected these hoardings on ‘occasion’ of his son’s wedding, has been booked under Section 4 of the Act.
It makes sense to see what Section 4 of the Act is about and also whatever the punishment could be in the event the law continues to take its course and even after all the attention that the tragedy provoked in the past three days is lost. In other words, even if the law takes its course and without being short-circuited (Jayagopal, after all, is not just an ordinary man and he had VIPs gracing his son’s wedding!), Jayagopal will end up serving a prison sentence of three months (it could be rigorous imprisonment in the worst case) and pay a fine of Rs 200.
The sorry state of public safety in India
If someone there reading this cannot resist laughing, it is worthwhile for you to check the
provisions of this law and Section 4 which has been invoked against Jayagopal. It is possible that the owner of the shop from where the hoardings were made is also held soon (his shop, we are informed has been sealed) and she/he too is inflicted with the same punishment — three months in jail and a fine of Rs 200.
None, and I repeat, none will be sent up to trial on charges of murder which is what happened to Subhasri. The young girl, indeed, was murdered on the road in broad daylight. She did not die as it will be made out. And common sense will help us agree with this. In the event, Jayagopal was the cause for the murder and hence must be held guilty. But then, the law ought to take its course and Jayagopal with the wealth in his command (it certainly must be ill-gotten for he would not have spent so much and so vulgarly on his son’s marriage) will be able to engage a moderately expensive lawyer who will prove the non-existence of mens rea in this case and hence establish it is not murder.
So, three months in jail and Jayakumar will ensure that he gets all he wants and even have hoardings erected on the roads leading to the courts and around the court premises during the trial and on the roads leading to whichever jail he is sent to, if at all he is sent to, and also a host of facilities inside there given his stature.
What does the law say in such matters?
Well, the point here is not about laws. We have had special laws and the Madras High Court has issued writs specifically against such hoardings. But these have not led to fewer hoardings, let alone none. The media, one must say, has played a proactive role in putting out such illegal acts all the while and yet we have not seen any fall in the number of hoardings.
The point then is not to throw one’s hands in despair and let things happen and let many more lives lost to similar accidents. The point is, as Gandhi would have held if he had not been assassinated on January 30, 1948 (I must say this is a wish that is just unreasonable for he would have died a natural death long before now), one needs to resort to acts of shaming the wrongdoers.
A people who show their revulsion to such megalomaniacs who would want a public display of their loyalty to their leaders — which is what Jayagopal’s hoardings were about — is perhaps the only way we could save many more such tragedies as that which Subhasri met with.
A people who show their revulsion to politicians and such others showing their riches and invading public spaces are mightier than the law and its long arm which, most often, turns paralytic when politicians are to be reached. A people who show their revulsion to the society of the spectacle — here I borrow the title of a wonderful text by Guy Debord — is what will restore us into a democracy that our forefathers had thought of on November 26, 1949.
Similarly, it is imperative for us, as a people, to debate and interrogate the technology that has made the making of hoardings an easy thing to do: The flex board that can be made with photo-shopped images of anyone and everyone with ease. This has helped proliferation of such hoardings in our times and is also adding to the non-degradable waste that is generated by the hour. The poor, hapless as they are, end up using the discarded flex sheets as cover over their thatched roofs and pay a dear price in the event of a fire accident. So, is it fair to seek a ban on this material and its use? I think it is.
A movement towards these will indeed be the tribute that one could pay to Subhasri.
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V Krishna Ananth teaches History at Sikkim University, Gangtok. .