Controversy

Targeting an activist

Print edition : August 19, 2016

Piyush Manush coming out of the Salem Central Prison. Photo: E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

Piyush ‘Manush’, an environmental activist based in Salem, lands in jail for “ultra-activism” as the court terms his attempt to block a rail overbridge project.

MOOKANERI was a filth-strewn and silted-up lake in the foothills of the ecologically fragile Shervaroyan Hills in the Eastern Ghats in Salem in Tamil Nadu until a few years ago. But even as people of the town went about their lives, a magic of sorts unfolded before their eyes as the lake began throbbing with life. The resurrection came through the formation of islets, planting of fruit-bearing tree saplings and the clearing and cleaning of the heavily encroached water channels. Today, the sprawling 58-acre lake is a massive spread of gleaming water and home to several species of birds. It was also a reference point for the restoration of several similarly placed waterbodies in and around Salem town ( Frontline, July 12, 2013).

The rejuvenated Mookaneri lake is also an “iconic model” for those working in the area of conservation of waterbodies. The credit for this conservation initiative and awareness-generation should go to a lone crusader, Piyush Sethia, or Piyush `Manush, as he prefers to call himself today. The 40-year-old who is from Rajasthan and has made Salem his home became an environmental crusader when he was still in school in Salem, which was sitting on an ecological powder keg because of mindless industrial pollution and reckless bauxite mining atop the Yercaud and Kolli hills.

Piyush has fought against mega industrial lobbies, powerful miners, land sharks and an insensitive State government. One of his big successes came when he mobilised local support and prevented an industrial major from mining iron ore on the picturesque Kanjamalai Hills in Salem. This enthused even the people of Tiruvannamalai, the temple town in northern Tamil Nadu, to fight off an attempt by the same industrial house to mine a hill there.

But in early July, his activities landed him in jail in connection with an incident concerned with the construction of a bridge over a railway line at Mulluvadi in the heart of Salem town. Two gates control access across the railway line now. On his Facebook page on July 7, Piyush asked the people of Salem “to wake up to the impending danger of a traffic chaos” in the town once the project got under way. He claimed that many bridge projects in the town took a long time to be completed since they were mired in land acquisition issues.

Several development and bridge works were under way at different places in the town and the rail overbridge project would put more pressure on the already stressed road users, said Piyush. “We inquired with the land owners on the status of the land acquisition process. They informed [us] that they have not been served any notice as such. Land acquisition is being handled by the land acquisition officer (DRO). We spoke to him and he was quite rude,” he said in his Facebook status.

“When all our efforts to make the administration see the genuine concerns regarding the project elicited no response, we resorted to a protest,” Piyush said. On July 8, he and two of his young associates, Eesan Karthik and Muthuselvam, attempted to stop the bhumipooja at the rail overbridge project site, with Piyush trying to chain himself to the earth mover. The police moved in and removed them forcibly.

On the basis of the compliant from a Senior Divisional Engineer (Construction), Southern Railway, the Salem Town Police registered cases against them under Sections 341, 188, 353 and 506 (II) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). They were sent to judicial custody and lodged in the Salem Central Prison. But what transpired thereafter was high drama. On July 15, a magistrate court in Salem dismissed Piyush’s bail application and granted conditional bail to the other two activists. This prompted environmental groups to voice their concern about the police’s “ulterior motives” against the activist.

Piyush was kept in solitary confinement, said his lawyer P. Mayan. His wife, Monica Sethia, on court approval, argued in person on her husband’s bail petition on July 16 before the District Principal Sessions Court Judge N. Seshasayee because of a State-level lawyers’ strike. The court was informed that Piyush told them during their prison visit that he had been subjected to severe physical and mental abuse in the prison cell (for which he later preferred a complaint with the police).

Mayan alleged that around 30 people, led by the Prison Superintendent, assaulted the activist. Piyush told Frontline that there was an attempt to paint him as a person with “suicidal tendencies”. “I do not know why. They posted a Chief Warder in front of my cell round the clock. He visited me in the cell every hour and jotted down some details in his notebook. I found it strange and fishy,” he said. He said an MRI scan after his release on bail showed a fracture in his right leg and oedema in his left leg. “They beat me below the knees and on my back,” he said.

Human rights issue

The attack drew strong protests and forced the Deputy Inspector General of Prisons, Coimbatore Range, to ask for a report from the Salem Central Prison authorities. Both State and national human rights commissions have also taken up the case.

The Sessions judge, while granting him conditional bail on July 20 after his 13-day incarceration, pointed out that society certainly needed activism but not “ultra-activism”. He said: “Given the nature of the offence, this court grants bail to the petitioner with a fond hope that the petitioner will spend a few moments of introspection, mend his attitude and display greater responsibility in his contribution to society in future.”

Public Prosecutor P. Dhanasekaran, who opposed his bail plea, argued that activism should be in sync with the law of the land. “You cannot violate it and then claim that I am fighting for people. He is not a law-abiding citizen,” he said. The government pleader said that Piyush was involved in a series of incidents that “affected public tranquillity.” However, the judge enlarged him on bail on executing a bond for Rs.10,000 with two sureties and directed him to appear and sign before the Salem Judicial Magistrate No.1 daily at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. until further orders or for a period of three weeks and on further condition that he shall make himself available for interrogation as and when required by the investigating officer.

It is true that over a period of time, various police stations in the town have registered cases against him on various occasions under different Sections such as 143, 188, 147, 448 and 353 of the IPC, besides crime number 94/2010 of the Asthampatti Police Station in Salem under Section 124 (a) of the IPC (sedition) read with 3 (1) of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984.

A senior official in the Salem district administration admitted that he was an earnest campaigner who made everyone uncomfortable with his persistence. “But he would insist that we accept ludicrously impossible tasks and would refuse to accept the impracticality,” he said and pointed out that it was again the State government that gave him permission to adopt Mookaneri lake and a few other waterbodies.

In fact, at one stage any activity relating to the environmental issues in and around Salem had the active involvement of Piyush.

“If a tree is felled for absurd reasons, he would be there on the spot to stop it. Such is his passion for nature,” said a senior citizen in the town. After floating the Salem Citizens’ Forum to take up environmental issues, he went on to “adopt” State-owned lakes and tanks for restoration. He is developing barren land measuring more than 100 acres (40 hectares) in Dharmapuri district into a coop forest with ponds, channels and rivulets. His services for flood-hit Chennai and Cuddalore also won him an award from the television channel CNN-IBN.

But Piyush has not confined his activism to environmental issues alone. “Whether it is the Bhopal gas tragedy or the Chhattisgarh Police’s high-handedness, he will be there on the streets and at the centre of the protest with a handful of youngsters. He acts spontaneously,” pointed out a trader in Salem town. That his activism has endeared him to many youths is not in doubt. But it has earned him foes, too, chiefly in the State administration, which he has left embarrassed many a time.

He was never conventional in his activism. He would jump into a gutter, throw handbills during a public function, storm into a gathering to raise questions that embarrass the organisers, and so on. He has been known for resorting to such kind of extreme activism for long. A few years back, he barged into the Anna Stadium where Independence Day celebrations were on. Raising slogans in support of the Bhopal gas victims, he distributed handbills asking the day to be declared as `Black Day. This promptly invited sedition charges.

In yet another incident, he reportedly emptied buckets of fly ash on the car of a senior official in Mettur to protest against the administration’s inaction to stop fly ash pollution by the Mettur Thermal Power Plant and also attempted to lock the office of the Pollution Control Board in Salem over a pollution-related issue. He brought out a booklet on the commissions and omissions of another senior officer. He jumped into the Pallapatti canal, which is a filthy sewer in the town, and stood waist-deep in its dark and foul-smelling water to make a fervent plea to the people to join him in cleaning it. This was videographed for a short promotional campaign.

His Facebook posts have been caustic against the State administration all along. To Frontline, he said: “My strong words have wounded many, though my concerns are genuine. I need to review and revisit my mode of approach too. Lessons have been learnt. I will rededicate myself to public causes, expanding my territory of activities so that it will benefit all. As people are overwhelmingly supporting me, I will further the cause of a sustainable activism in future.”

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