Alarmed men run frantically outside a government office, clutching cans of water and sand to douse the flames. They all charge in the direction of four bodies engulfed in fire. While a man, woman and one child stand with flames covering their torsos, a burning toddler has collapsed on the ground with people pouring water on its head.
This heartbreakingly terrible sight, captured in multiple pictures, took place outside the Tirunelveli Collectorate on Monday, when a couple immolated themselves and their children after their complaints over harassment from loan sharks allegedly fell on deaf ears.
Isakimuthu, a daily wage labourer from Kasidharmam village in Tirunelveli district had borrowed Rs 1,40,000 from two moneylenders in the neighbourhood, Muthulakshmi and Ganapathiraj. They were reportedly told to pay a monthly interest of 10% of the total amount till the time the principal was paid back.
This is an illegal practice commonly known as 'kandhu vatti' that has a pervasive presence across Tamil Nadu, which borrowers resort to when they need money urgently. The exorbitant interest rates charged in such loans sometimes end up costing borrowers many times the original loan amount.
There have been several reported cases of farmers killing themselves following harassment over loans they have taken from local lenders, and families have lost their homes and lands when unable to pay exorbitant interest rates.
According to reports, Isakimuthu and his wife had paid over Rs 2 lakh as interest already, but were still being subjected to constant harassment. The moneylenders would allegedly threaten the couple at their residence, and abuse them in front of their children.
Unable to handle the harassment, Isakimuthu filed two petitions at the Collectorate, but no action had allegedly been taken.
At 11am on Monday, the couple went to the Collector's office with their two children, aged five years and one-and-a-half years. They then poured kerosene over their torsos and immolated themselves.
Though there were other members of the public present when the couple doused themselves and the children with kerosene, those present did not initially react to the situation.
Local residents told TNM that it has been common for members of the public to threaten suicide if their petitions were not acted upon, but they are almost always stopped before they can proceed. When the family actually set themselves on fire, people reacted quickly, trying to douse the flames with water and sand.
However, the incident has triggered a debate on social media on the role of the media in such incidents, as some images circulating online showed multiple camera persons present on the scene, photographing the incident.
Members of the public finally managed to douse the flames, and the family were rushed to the Government Hospital. Isakimuthu's wife Subbulakshmi and his eldest daughter succumbed to their injuried, while he and his younger child still remain critical.
The police, however, deny inaction on the part of authorities, and claim that the family took the extreme step without giving officials the time to intervene in the issue.
"They had given petitions to the Collector earlier and investigations were underway," says an official at the Tirunelveli Superintendent of Police's office. "But they took this step before they got to the bottom of the matter. Our officers are now looking into the matter again," he added.
The Tenkasi DSP is currently questioning the moneylenders over the allegations of harassment.