If ever there was a sign from above for Tamil Nadu authorities to act against illegal hoardings and banners dangling dangerously over and next to roads swarming with vehicles, this was it. The freakish death of 23-year-old Subhasree Ravi on September 12 sparked public revulsion in Tamil Nadu. The software engineer was killed after an unauthorised hoarding collapsed on her while she was riding a scooter, causing her to fall and get crushed by a water tanker coming from behind. The billboard was erected to announce a wedding in the family of a politician from the state’s ruling AIADMK party. A video of the horrific incident spread on social media, prompting nationwide outrage.
Illegal hoardings, banners and cutouts are not a menace unique to Tamil Nadu, and politicians, as well as their supporters, are often the culprits. However, the southern state has a very distinct culture of deifying its leaders and film stars. The adoration gets compounded when a celebrity makes the transition from the silver screen to the political stage, which is a commonplace occurrence. Observers, though, say that following the deaths of AIADMK general secretary J Jayalalithaa in 2016 and opposition DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi in 2018 – both former chief ministers who had entered the political arena after successful careers in the film industry – the personality cult and banner culture in the state may be dented to some extent.
File photo of Subashree, the Chennai girl who died after an AIADMK billboard fell over her.
Nevertheless, Tamil Nadu witnesses a plethora of billboards and banners right through the year, mostly promoting religious, celluloid or political causes. Every town, small and big, is full of dangerously erected boards on wooden stilts jutting onto the roads, often placed on the median strips of even thoroughfares. A death, birth, or wedding in the family, the ear-boring ceremony of a child, a girl coming of age: any reason could spur residents to announce themselves to complete strangers. Political parties, and the film industry to a lesser extent, though, do it with monotonous regularity and on a much larger size and scale.
Two years ago, another software engineer, Ragupathy Kandasamy, 30, was killed after his motorcycle crashed into a hoarding that was jutting out onto the road. As he fell from his vehicle, a truck ran him over. In this case too, the billboard belonged to an AIADMK leader.
Activists hope that the public outrage triggered by Subhasree’s death will put an end to the banner culture in Tamil Nadu, or at least temper it. Political parties promptly came out with requests to their cadre to not put up such hoardings that cause inconvenience to the public. But these gestures and measures are meaningless unless strictly implemented. Parties have made such appeals before and they have had very little effect. DMK president, and Karunanidhi’s son, MK Stalin has pledged that he will not attend any events where his cadres put up illegal cutouts and hoardings.
Billboards and banners obstructing traffic or extending onto the roads have been banned in the state for long. The Madras High Court has rapped the government time and again for not implementing its orders on the issue. But with political leaders keen to see their mugs plastered all over the roads and tacitly encouraging the cadre to put up such billboards, police and municipal officials have been reluctant to act. An octogenarian activist KR ‘Traffic’ Ramaswamy has been crusading against such banners and boards for years. In fact, it was he who moved court multiple times on the matter. He even tried pulling down some of these banners and was arrested for his efforts.
The actions of the AIADMK government following Subhasree's death left a lot to be desired. Instead of immediately penalising the party member, C Jayagopal, whose family wedding was being announced by the hoarding, authorities arrested the tanker driver, who barely had seconds to react after the woman was struck by the board and fell on the road. They also sealed the printing press where the sign was created. Following media and public outrage, the AIADMK man’s name was added to the FIR. However, he is yet to be arrested or questioned. Subhasree's father said no government representative had visited them after the incident.
The Madras High Court ordered compensation of Rs 5 lakh to be paid to the family. The judges also asked that appropriate action, including disciplinary proceedings, be initiated against the municipal corporation as well as police officials concerned. The court ordered the Chennai city police as well as civic officials to come up with a joint action plan for conducting a mass drive against illegal billboards across the city. Perhaps this is a sign of good things to come.
(The author is a political observer. Views are personal)