Battered but not beaten: Chitlapakkam residents fight for the right to ask questions
Battered but not beaten: Chitlapakkam residents fight for the right to ask questions

Battered but not beaten: Chitlapakkam residents fight for the right to ask questions

In October, an FIR was filed against four residents – Balachandar, Kumar, Shivakumar and Sunil – for demanding to see the work order for a project in their locality.

It has been over a week since 29-year-old Balachandar, a resident of Chitlapakkam, was released on conditional bail from Puzhal prison. He was amongst four residents accused of 'inciting riot' against civic officials, merely because they questioned why unauthorised civic work was underway in their locality. For the five days that he remained in prison, his family was distraught and hardly able to even eat due to worry, says Balachandar.

Now, even as he is back home, the young man points out that his livelihood is at risk because of the bail conditions imposed on him. "We have been told that we need to come sign a register at Manimangalam, that is 15 km from here, twice a day to maintain the bail. I am a cab driver and the timings are 10 am and 5 pm. That means my entire schedule is now based on this. It has been very stressful for my family. My father was a sub inspector, so the only other income is his pension money," he explains. "What keeps me going is the belief that I am fighting for rights of the common man," he adds.

On October 19 and 20, Balachandar, Kumar, Shivakumar and Sunil, residents of Chitlapakkam, asked the Assistant Executive Engineer (AEE) for the work order for the stormwater project and the road digging the civic body was carrying out on Sethunarayanan Street and Ramanan Street. One of them was recording the conversation and clicking pictures, but the official snatched the phone. When residents demanded answers about the digging, the work had already been underway for 15 days. This, despite the concerned tender allegedly being closed only on October 17.

The police then filed a case, accusing these common men of 'inciting riot', using criminal force against a public servant, using obscenities and even criminal intimidation, at the behest of the AEE. Balachandar and Kumar were then detained on October 21 and only given bail five days later.

Kumar, who is 61 years old, admits that the travelling required to merely maintain bail is physically taxing.

"I am a retired bank employee. I was not criminally intimidating anyone. In our five days in jail, I could hardly even eat," he says, "But the strength that our residents gave us kept me going. I was aware that I was fighting for a good cause.”

The other two residents are members of Chitlapakkam Rising, an NGO that concentrates on delays and lack of provision of civic amenities. Shivakumar, the associate secretary and Sunil, a founding member of the group both received anticipatory bail this week. But not before allegedly having to fight false claims from the public prosecutor representing the civic officials. The contractor, following the incident, has put up a board at the work site, stating that the order was given on October 22.

"But in court on Thursday, the public prosecutor is now claiming that the contract was awarded in August," says Vaidyanathan, the lawyer for the accused residents. "In addition to this, they are stating that the residents intervened because Chitlapakkam Rising, a residents' body that they belong to, had an interest in acquiring the tender. They have no such designs," he adds.

The court summoned Manohar, the AEE involved in the case and even questioned why a common man's phone was snatched. The judge further questioned why aggression was shown for merely asking questions.

"But he stopped just short of quashing the FIR. As soon as the Deepavali holidays end, we will have to go to court again for this," says Sunil.

In addition to this, the residents and the lawyer say that the detention of these men was done in an illegal manner. While the case was filed against four of them on Friday, only two of them were home when the police summoned them.

"I was leaving for a wedding with my family when I was told the Assistant commissioner wants to conduct an enquiry. Kumar sir and I then went to the station and they detained us. There was not even a warrant and the next morning the remand happened. But we were not surprised. We knew that the AEE already had a bone to pick with us," says 29-year-old Balachander. "Last year we confronted the same AEE Manoharan about putting bund light in the Chitlapakkam lake and regarding its restoration. Even then he warned us saying that he will register a case of obstructing civic work if we ask too many questions," he says.

Advocate Vaidyanathan confirms that a case regarding the lake restoration is in fact coming up in court on November 8.

"That is the real cause of irritation here. The civic officials are angry because we have filed two public interest litigations in the matter," he points out. "Basically the message they are sending out here is that if you question authorities, you will be jailed. Sure, the law is on our side but innocent residents are going back and forth to the police station and court, while those fooling the public are unperturbed. This is an upfront assault on citizens' freedom," he adds.

Meanwhile, Sunil is all set to file an RTI to find out the exact nature of the work order given.

"We want to know what the width and height will be, what quality of cement will be used and the scope of this work," he says. "Now that they are doing the work, we will make sure that it is done correctly."

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