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Above: Hoardings and banners on Anna Salai, an arterial road in Chennai/Photo: Wikipedia.org

The death of a young techie after a hoarding fell on her scooter is proof that politicians and political parties have scant regard for multiple orders by the Madras High Court placing severe restrictions on such advertising

By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai

“How many more litres of blood do you want to paint the roads with? Is this the value of life of a citizen in this country? Why are bureaucrats so insensitive? These flex boards do not come up overnight…. We have been passing orders against flex boards since December 2018….”

These were the words of a division bench of the Madras High Court consisting of Justices M Sathyanarayanan and N Seshasayee. The bench was hearing a contempt plea by social activist Traffic Ramaswamy over the death of a 23-year-old woman technocrat who was crushed to death by a speeding water tanker after an illegal hoarding fell on her while she was riding a scooter in Chennai. The tragic accident happened on September 12 and the next day the High Court took up the matter.

It was a contempt matter because already in the past three years and more the High Court had passed several orders regarding removal of illegal hoardings/banners/cut-outs/flex boards across Tamil Nadu. But the orders have been rampantly flouted by political parties and the state government, especially the police. The government had assured the court during that time that flex boards had come down by 80 percent.

A visibly agitated division bench admonished Advocate General Vijay Narayan: “Sorry, we have lost faith in the government. Are we declaring our impotence by allowing you to violate our orders infinitely?” It also ordered an immediate compensation of Rs 5 lakh to the family of Subhasri Ravi. The hoarding that caused the death of Subhasri was put up by ruling AIADMK party worker S Jayagopal to welcome Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam for the marriage of his daughter. Jayagopal was a former councillor of Chennai Corporation.

Lawyers and social activists squarely blame the police for Subhasri’s death. “There were several judgments of the Madras High Court and a couple of Supreme Court judgments that made even small injuries caused by hoarding collapse a cognisable offence. In this case, it is a murder which is a cognisable offence. The police initially tried to cover up the whole episode but failed due to the mushrooming of social media/television channels,” said A Vasantha, a practising lawyer.

Several months back in what was seen as a strange order, a single-judge bench of the Madras High Court banned the use of pictures of living persons on hoardings/banners in Tamil Nadu. The judge warned that if at all any permission was given by the authorities concerned for erecting hoardings, et al, they must ensure that pictures of persons who are alive shall not be depicted by way of those banners/hoardings. “In practical terms this means that the pictures of chief ministers, ministers or politicians of any political party, whether ruling or opposition, can no longer be used in hoardings/banners/posters/flex boards/signboards. How can this be implemented when the very purpose of erecting these hoardings by the cadres of political parties is nothing but to please their political bosses,” said A Pandian, a lawyer.

Tamil Nadu has a “rich history of sorts” of hoardings, banners and cut-outs. The practice started in June 1991, when J Jayalalithaa captured power with a brute majority of 160 MLAs (out of a total of 234 MLAs) in the state. From 1991 to 1996, giant cut-outs became the norm for her party cadre and these were erected anywhere and everywhere in the state. Jayalalithaa cut-outs of 120 feet were common in those days. In fact, making cut-outs/banners became a huge and successful business and gave employment to hundreds of people during that period. “We used to get regular business in that period (1991 to 1996). There would be regular orders as Amma (Jayalalithaa) used to attend at least two to three functions in Chennai and other places every week. After her defeat in 1996, the business suffered. Though it rose again in 2001, when Amma returned to power, we did not have the roaring business of 1991-1996. Those golden days had gone forever. Now we have ventured into other businesses and incidents like Subhasri’s death will wipe out the remaining minuscule cut-outs/hoardings business in the state,” said A Moorthy, a Chennai-based businessman who was into making cut-outs/hoardings for several years.

This hoarding/banner culture is broadly called “cut-out culture” in the state. Tamil Nadu has the notorious distinction of temples being built and shrines raised for be­loved political leaders and cine stars. In 1984, when the then chief minister, MG Ramachandran, or MGR, as he was called, fell ill and was battling for life in the United States—where he had gone for treatment—a couple of temples were built for him in the state. One such temple was built right in front of the Madras High Court. However, a few years back, it was removed by the civic authorities when they widened the roads.

Giant cut-outs and temples were also erected/built for cinema stars. One of the leading actresses of Tamil cinema in the 1990s, Khushboo, has the dubious distinction of a temple built for her which was later demolished by her own fans when she gave an interview to a national weekly saying that “no progressive man in this age will expect that his future wife will be a virgin”.

A couple of months back, a temple was built for a former chief minister, the late M Karunanidhi. Temples were also built for Tamil superstar Rajinikanth and actress Namithaa.

According to the state police, the issue is not a political menace but a social one. “Erecting giant cut-outs for politicians and filmstars has been a common thing in Tamil Nadu for ages. Apart from politicians and filmstars, people are also erecting cut-outs and putting up flex boards and banners for their family functions. One can see cut-outs and banners for weddings, betrothals and even for functions celebrating the attainment of puberty of a beloved daughter. The parents and close relatives of the concerned young girl erect cut-outs/banners. It will take some hard talk by the concerned jurisdictional police officers to convince the family to remove the
cut-outs/banners,” said a senior police officer on condition of anonymity.

While welcoming the High Court order, he, however, cautioned that it is difficult to implement the verdict because the problem is basically not political but social.

In Tamil Nadu where sycophancy is the only driving factor behind such activities, implementing the recent Court order will not be easy.

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