Print edition : March 09, 2012

Vellaiyan, who was allegedly forced to swallow human excreta, with his wife and daughter at his M.G.R. Nagar home at Thiruvakkarai in Villupuram district.-C. VENKATACHALAPATHY

The alleged incident of two quarry workers in Tamil Nadu's Villupuram district being forced to swallow faeces draws attention to larger issues.

NORMALLY the villages and hamlets in and around Thiruvakkarai in Tamil Nadu's Villupuram district are woken up by the loud noise and vibrations caused by the blasting of rocks and the pounding of boulders with sledge hammers, apart from the rattling sound of tipper lorries transporting stones from 40-odd stone quarries. But on January 31, the residents of M.G.R. Nagar in the area had an even more terrible experience. Much before the routine activities in the quarries began, they woke up to the screams of a neighbour who was dragged out of his house and beaten up with sticks by the henchmen of a local quarry owner who suspected his involvement in the alleged theft of a sledge hammer.

As blows were rained on S. Vellaiyan, the 40-year-old victim, the other residents watched helplessly. Shortly afterwards, he was taken to the stone quarry owned by T.S.P. Durai, also known as Palaniyandi, along with another quarry worker, Veerappan. There, they were forced to swallow human excreta in the presence of fellow quarry workers, including Vellaiyan's wife, Bhoopathi, says a complaint lodged with the police. The quarry owner allegedly recorded the obnoxious scene on his cellphone. Vellaiyan's nine-year-old daughter, V. Vijayalaksmi, a Standard III student at the government school in the village, was also at the quarry. She could not speak coherently when she tried to recall the incident. Clearly, it will take a long time for her to recover from the trauma.

The first information report (FIR) filed in the Vanur police station on February 3, on the basis of the complaint lodged by Bhoopathi, gives a graphic description of the crime allegedly committed by the quarry owner and his two accomplices, Praveen and Suresh. All the three accused surrendered in a local court and were lodged at the Central Prison in Cuddalore on February 8. They reportedly handed over the cellphone used to capture the incident. They accused, who allegedly said at the time of the crime that the two men were being awarded exemplary punishment so that they could be taught a lesson, have since pleaded not guilty.

Vellaiyan and Veerappan left the village on the same day. Vellaiyan returned on February 9, but local residents said they still did not know where Veerappan, a migrant from Tambaram near Chennai, was.

Vellaiyan told Frontline shortly after his return to Thiruvakkarai that he had fled the village because he could not stand the ignominy. On February 10, he was admitted to the Villupuram Government Medical College Hospital. Vellaiyan, had been working in the quarries as a stone crusher and truck driver. His father and grandfather, migrants from Vennanampatti in Salem district, had settled in Thiruvakkarai to work in the stone quarries.

The incident of January 31 might not have come to light but for the efforts of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), some local residents said. The CPI(M) came up with posters condemning the human rights abuse and sought action against the perpetrators of the crime. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) also organised protests demanding action against the culprits.

Vellaiyan insisted that he had no part in any theft and that all he had done was to find Veerappan, whom he had met recently, a buyer for a sledge hammer that he wanted to sell. He introduced Veerappan to a local resident who bought it for Rs.300.

Enquiries revealed that quarry workers had their own sledge hammers, which weighed from 8 to 9 kilogrammes and cost Rs.600 to Rs.800. The quarry owner, Durai, and his men did not stop beating me though I pleaded innocence. All my appeals fell on deaf ears. At one stage, I even said that I would ensure that the sledge hammer was returned. I suffered blows from chest to toe. I was forced to eat faeces. With pain caused by the blows and nausea becoming unbearable, I fainted and fell on a rock close to a huge quarry pit, he said.

Bhoopathi, a mother of three, said, What they have done is unpardonable. I requested the quarry owner not to harass my husband as he was not involved in any theft. I even suggested that the quarry owner could extract work from my husband to compensate for the stolen tool if he was not prepared to believe his innocence. The trio did not spare me and my parents for supporting my husband. They took away my household articles and locked my house and that of my parents. Before dragging my husband and the other worker to the quarry, they hurled abuses on us.

Bhoopathi said that she had given all these details in her complaint to the Vanur police. According to her, the quarry owner emptied his bowels and asked Veerappan to collect the excreta in an earthen pot. Then he asked Vellaiyan and Veerappan to swallow it. Vellaiyan fell at his feet and begged to be spared. But the quarry owner kicked him saying that the likes of him would reform only with such punishment. Disgusted, I started moving away from the place. But the quarry owner hit me on my face and my back and forced me to witness the horrible scene. He also asked the workers in his quarry to assemble at the venue to view the execution of the punishment. Just as my husband and the other worker started swallowing the human waste, the quarry owner captured it in a mobile phone camera, Bhoopathi alleged. When she filed her complaint, she also requested the police to look for her husband, who had not yet come back. The complainant also sought police protection for her family and the entire habitation. According to the FIR, a case was registered under Sections 341, 323, 355, 448 and 383 of the Indian Penal Code.

Horrible, but is it unprecedented?

According to the Tamil scholar and folklorist A. Sivasubramanian, though there is no historical or literary evidence that any such incident occurred in ancient Tamil land, Baltazar da Costa, a Portuguese Jesuit priest, recorded a brutal punishment meted out to a man in the 17th century in Madurai. Tirumalai Nayak, appointed by the Vijyanagara king to govern Madurai, crushed a revolt against him. The suspected brain behind the plot was made to mount a donkey, holding over his head a pot filled with human excreta, which spilled on his face as he was taken in a procession.

Even during the days of the barbaric feudalism practised in the then composite Thanjavur district, at present comprising Thanjavur, Nagapattinam and Tiruvarur districts, the landlords stopped short of this kind of punishment, though erring farm workers were forced to drink water laced with cow dung. Such atrocities came to an end in 1942, after heroic battles launched by the kisan movement led by communists.

However, some observers have pointed out that making suspects swallow faeces was part of a third-degree torture method adopted by the police in the Madras Presidency in the pre-Independence era. More recently, two Dalits were forced to feed each other human excreta at Thinniyam village in Tiruchi district on May 22, 2002 ( Frontline, October 25, 2002). In another incident reported on January 14, 2010, a Dalit was allegedly forced to eat human excreta for walking with his footwear on in a residential area of upper-caste Christians in Meikovilpatti village in Dindigul district.

Some four years ago, in Thiruvakkarai itself, a relative of a quarry owner reportedly threatened a worker with an electric shock if he refused to consume human waste for not repaying a loan taken from him, a resident of M.G.R. Nagar alleged.

On September 22, 2003, a group of caste Hindus splashed water mixed with faeces on the face of a Dalit woman at Urappanur village in Madurai district ( The Hindu, September 30, 2003). She had protested against attempts by an upper-caste man to subject her to sexual assault.

However, in the recent incident at Thiruvakkarai, both the victims and the accused belonged to the same Most Backward community, local residents said.

One of the quarries owned by the person who allegedly forced Vellaiyan and another quarry worker to swallow human excreta, at Thiruvakkarai.-C. VENKATACHALAPATHY

The larger picture

The Thiruvakkarai episode has also brought to the fore the appalling living conditions, the hazardous working environment, and the absence of social security that quarry workers put up with. S. Muthukumaran, convener of the Villupuram district unit of the TNUEF, said there were over 100 stone quarries in the district and around 40 were located in Thiruvakkarai. A sizable number of the workers, who live in grinding poverty, are migrants from Salem and Dharmapuri districts.

Labour laws and statutory benefits, which would include an assured minimum wage, membership of the Employees' State Insurance Scheme and housing, have not been implemented sincerely. The workers had no title deeds for their house sites though they had been residing in areas such as Anna Nagar and M.G.R. Nagar for more than 40 years, Muthukumaran said, adding that most of their children dropped out of school even before completing Standard V. Poverty often forced the workers to borrow from private moneylenders at high rates of interest.

According to the founder of the Tamizhnadu Kalludaikkum Thozhilalar Sangam (Tamil Nadu Stone Crushers Union), S.P. Gnanamani, who has been working among stone quarry workers from the 1970s, out of 7.5 lakh families depending on the stone quarries in the State, 5.5 lakh families work as bonded labourers. Though the State government implemented a scheme in the 1990s to give a certain number of quarries in lease to the workers freed from bondage, many of them have become defunct, owing to lack of adequate support from the authorities, he said. The workers had been paid piece rate wages, he said, adding that the minimum wages were fixed six years ago. In the absence of proper monitoring by the authorities concerned, labour laws and safety measures are not enforced in the quarries. The workers had to face the onslaught of the authorities as they were entrusted the job of purchasing explosives for blasting the rocks, he alleged.

Sexual harassment of women workers was also not uncommon, he said. Besides, as the workers migrated from one place to another, education of their children became a casualty, he pointed out. The only residential school for the wards of the quarry workers, with a strength of 159, was started in 2001 at Rasakkapatti in Dindigul district, but it was wound up last year because there were no funds.

Workers usually found themselves borrowing sizable amounts as advance from the quarry owners, and with their repaying capacity being poor, they lost their freedom to move over to another quarry. Gnanamani said that quarry owners had put up makeshift hovels with thatched roofs on poramboke lands for workers without basic amenities such as electricity and drinking water. Expressing dismay at the nexus between politicians, officials and quarry owners irrespective of the party in power, he urged the government to protect the rights of the workers and curb the plunder of natural resources, by taking over all the stone quarries and creating a separate board for quarry workers.

The travails of these workers in the unorganised sector was captured on camera by the poet and documentary film-maker Kutti Revathi in Kal Manithargal (Stone Humans) for the Dindigul-based Quarry Workers Development Society a couple of years ago, he said.

K. Ravi, deputy general secretary of the State unit of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), said there were 15,000 stone quarries spread over 20 districts providing employment to 4.5 lakh workers. About 20 per cent of the quarries were unauthorised. Both men and women were working in inhuman conditions, and they were not even provided proper treatment in the event of accidents at the workplace. They would lose their jobs if they protested, he said.

V.A. Rameshnathan, director of Tindivanam-based Social Awareness Society for Youths, urged the government to order a probe into alleged sexual assaults against women workers in the stone quarries of the State.

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