Heavy showers inundated Coimbatore district in Tamil Nadu as dawn set in on Monday. By 5 am, the rains brought down a 20-foot high compound wall in Nadur village in Mettupalayam, killing 17 persons from three families – four children, five teenagers, two men and six women - in Kannappa Layout. All the dead were from Dalit Arundhathiyar community.
“We did hear the sound of wall collapse, but we did not hear any screams,” Nagaraj P, a villager, told Onmanorama.
On Wednesday, the police arrested textile trader S Sivasubramaniam, who built the compound wall, for offences for culpable homicide not amounting to murder (under Section 304 (ii) of the Indian Penal Code) and for Section 4 of the Tamil Nadu Property (Prevention of Damage and Loss) Act.
Kannappa Layout residents had been demanding to pull down the wall ever since it was built five years ago, but their pleas went unheard.
Residents, with the support of along several organisations, had launched street protests, alleging that it was a caste-wall that separated Dalits from Mudaliar, who belonged to Other Backward Community (OBC).
Of the 2,700 people living in the layout, 1,400 are from Dalit Arundhathiyar community, who work as daily wage labourers for a living.
S Sivasubramaniam, who built the wall, belongs to Mudaliar community.
He had increased the height of the wall to 20-foot a few years ago, ignoring opposition from the Dalits. “The width too increased along with the height. Seventeen lives could have saved had they listened to us then. Our pleas went unheard,” complained another resident Tulasiraman.
On October 13, 2018, Dalit residents had sent a letter to the municipal authorities, appealing to ensure their safety as the compound wall, constructed using basalt rock, was unsafe.
A few of months ago, the residents again petitioned the local administration to bring down the wall, but to no avail.
Nagai Tiruvalluvan, president, Tamil Puligal Katchi alleged that the wall was built to keep Dalits away. “The illegal construction was carried out using poor quality material,” he said.
The compound wall had not only cut off their pathway to the main road, but was in the verge of collapse because of water seepage. “The Dalit families had to take a longer route to reach the main road,” said Chandrasekar T, District Secretary, Thanthai Periyar Dravida Kazhagam. “The authorities should have addressed the problem when it was brought to their notice.”
'Ensure justice to the dead'
At least 10 human rights and political groups, including Tami Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front and Dravida Tamizhar Katchi, joined the protest, seeking justice to the families of the dead.
The protesters had staged demonstration in front of Mettupalayam Government hospital, blocked the arterial Ooty Road and staged a dharna at Thiruvalluvar Bus Stand in Coimbatore. Nearly 24 persons, including five lawyers, were arrested and imprisoned in Salem jail. On Tuesday, at least 200 persons participated in a protest and nearly half of them have been detained.
“We want the accused to be booked under the SC/ST Atrocities Act,” demanded Aruchamy R, district secretary, Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front. “This is a crime committed against the Dalit community and police should ensure that the charges are filed under this act.”
The protesters demanded that a compensation of at least Rs 25 lakh should be provided for the families of the deceased.
Social activists felt that the government had cremated the dead hurriedly to destroy evidences.
Writer V Geetha said what collapsed on the Dalits was indeed a caste wall. “The dead were cremated hurriedly and sooner or later the state will tell us how warranted or not these deaths were,” she said.
Meanwhile, Coimbatore district collector K Rajamani told the media that he has ordered demolition of the structure and a review would be carried out to find such walls to prevent further accidents.
(S Senthalir is an independent journalist based in Chennai)