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Last & Final Wake-Up Call

Last & Final Wake-Up Call

The manner in which an illegal banner, put up on a road divider by a ruling party functionary, fell on 23-year old Subasri riding a two-wheeler, sending her off-balance and under a tanker lorry in Chennai last week sparked massive public outrage.

Subasri was the only child for her parents. Suffice to say that the death of a child is devastating and often referred to as the worst experience that parents can endure and the pain of grief is extremely intense.

The very next day, the Madras High Court, apart from directing the State Government to pay an interim compensation of five lakh rupees to the father of the deceased girl, came down heavily on the local authorities for having failed to implement in letter and spirit multiple orders passed by the court against erection of banners without authorization. “How many more litres of blood the state government needs to paint the roads with. There is zero respect for lives in this country,” the court asked. Raghu, a young engineer, died under similar circumstances in Coimbatore two years ago. Babu, was electrocuted in Udhagamandalam when he touched a party flag that was in contact with a wire. The above instances involved rickety banners erected illegally on the roads.

Thanks to Chennai's octogenarian activist “Traffic Ramaswamy” who has filed over 300 PILs against various social issues – from petitioning against motorised fish carts to illegal digital banners, building violations and several other traffic related issues - a specific ban imposed by the High Court on December 19 last year prevented political parties from putting up banners.

In 2017, the Madras High Court had ruled that the Tamil Nadu Open Places (Prevention of Disfigurement) Act, 1959 must be complied with. Accordingly if at all any permission is given by the authority concerned for erecting banners, flex boards, sign-boards, etc., photographs/pictures of such persons who are alive, should not be depicted on such banners. Also photographs/pictures of the persons who sponsor such banners shall also not be depicted.

According to press reports, the Chief Secretary issued circulars to all district Collectors and Superintendents of Police to strictly enforce the rules relating the erection of illegal flex boards, banners and cut outs by political parties. This means that flex boards, banners and cut outs should not be erected on highways, roads, street and road junctions and platforms to the detriment of road users, motorists and two-wheeler riders. A district level meeting of representatives of all flex board printing press owners and representatives of all political parties too was convened by the government and the court directives were explained to them.

If media reports are to be believed, the hoarding that killed Subasri was installed on a road divider with impunity disregard of rules and notably without permission. It fell on her scooty after which she lost her balance and was immediately run over by a tanker lorry that was behind her. According to press reports, prima facie, Subasri is said to have suffered extensive injuries on the body — broken ribs and crushed hand — and lost blood, but there was no head injury. To be exact, she was alive and battling for life for one whole hour. Timely medical intervention could have saved her.

But why did Subasri die despite measures put in place by the Judiciary? Was it lack of implementation of court orders? For a moment let us read a Mumbai High Court judgment delivered recently, which, among others observed that there is a competition amongst the political parties when it comes to size of the sky-signs displaying photographs of their prominent leaders. Sometimes the competition is also in terms of number of sky-signs. Notwithstanding the assurances given to this Court, none of the political parties have taken any serious action against its workers who indulged in the illegalities. The involvement of political class makes the job of the Municipal Officers and Police very difficult when it comes to taking an action against the illegal sky-signs and setting the criminal law in motion against wrongdoers.

The driver of the tanker which ran over Subasri has been arrested and charged with negligent driving lorry and the printing shop that made the flex board sealed. However, the local authorities who allowed the hoardings despite a court-ordered ban and the ‘dignitary’ for whose family function the banner was erected remain at large.

As an immediate measure the local authorities formed a special patrol to check illegal hoardings and flex banners across the city and around 4000 illegal banners were removed and cases registered against those responsible a day of the court expressed displeasure. Dedicated phone lines have also be launched for citizens to register complaints related to illegal hoardings and banners. Major political parties in Tamil Nadu and film stars have appealed to their cadres/fans to desist from erecting banners. Had such measures been effected in compliance to past court orders, Subasri would have been alive today.

Studies have concluded that anything that takes a driver’s eyes off the road for more than two seconds greatly increases the risk of a crash. All it takes is a second of distraction to cause a road accident. Be it visual, manual or cognitive, whatever be the cause, its consequences can be serious. It is all the more important that banners used as display of power or fealty on roads should be banned. But is it practically possible? More so because, across cities, cutouts and banners come in different shapes and sizes since they fulfil different needs like political and social. At the regulatory level, there is an imperative need for fixing of accountability amongst officials and hold them responsible for public safety. We need to wake up and appreciate that human life is precious and rules have to be respected. Will Subasri’s death serve as a last and final wake-up call? 

(Published on 23rd September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 39)