On January 13, even as dense smog settled upon the city of Chennai after Bhogi celebrations, over 100 people took to the streets in search of a 26-year-old man. M Praveen Kumar, an employee of Savera Hotels, had learning disabilities and had gone missing from TTK Road at 7am that morning.
Praveen and his mother Vijayalakshmi were boarding a bus to his workplace when she noticed that her son had failed to get on to the bus. Panicking, she rushed to the Teynampet police station to file a missing person complaint. She even made calls to the hotel that Praveen worked for and to his alma mater – Vidyasagar, a school for special children in Kotturpuram. The two institutions immediately sent out volunteers to look for Praveen. People from the missing man's neighbourhood, too, took to the streets in bikes and auto rickshaws, hoping to find him.
But even as civilians united to search for Praveen, the institution with the most suitable resources – the police force, allegedly failed to act on the case immediately. The next morning at 2.45 am Praveen was mowed down by a vehicle on Anna Salai and he died on the spot. His body lay unidentified in the morgue for two days, even as the city continued to scour through every street and back alley to find him.
‘Murder caused by apathy’
"My wife went to the police station by 8am to give the complaint, but the FIR was only filed at 5pm. Till then, the police did absolutely nothing to look for my son," says Manavalan, Praveen's father. "No information was given to patrol teams in the area. My son was intellectually disabled and he couldn’t have found his way back home. He couldn’t even have asked people for help, but he could answer questions easily. Even if one police man had stopped him to ask who he was or where he was going, he would have immediately told them enough details to be rescued," he adds, frustrated.
Instead, Manavalan who returned from a pilgrimage to Sabarimala on January 17, found himself being rushed to the Royapettah hospital to identify the body of his son.
"His head was completely smashed but I knew it was him. After searching for him sleeplessly for three days, my wife only got to see his body. He was just six kilometers aways from where he went missing," says Manavalan, his voice shaking. "My son's death is not an accident. It is a murder caused by apathy of the police," he adds.
How the police failed Praveen
In a written complaint to Chennai Commissioner of police AK Viswanathan, the Disabilities Rights Alliance has explained in detail how exactly the police failed Praveen.
To begin with, the FIR for the missing case filed by his mother was not registered for over eight hours. In addition to this, information was allegedly not passed on to police teams in the city regarding a missing person.
"On January 14, a day after Praveen went missing, we organised teams to search for him. Close to 200 people were out on the roads and they were told he was wearing a red T-shirt when he was last seen," says Kalpana Rao, the principal of Vidyasagar.
"A couple of the volunteers met a traffic cop on St Mary's Road which is one minute away from where Praveen went missing. When they asked him if he had seen the boy, the cop said that he was from Teynampet station but had not received any information on a missing man, or his description yet," she explains.
FIR filed only at 5 pm
According to Kalpana, the first 24 hours which are crucial to finding a missing person, were completely non-utilised by the police. "Our teams covered Alwarpet, T Nagar and several other areas. But the police had not even started following the necessary procedure to find Praveen," alleges Kalpana.
"We had put out posters on social media and even physically stuck them around the city with my phone number. I was getting calls throughout the day from across the state. Even people from Tiruchy and Madurai were calling to confirm if the news was real. The police meanwhile had not even uploaded the FIR online or put out the news that Praveen was missing," she adds.
Missing persons list not updated
In fact, details of the case appeared in the police's 'missing' section online, two days after Praveen's body was identified.
Ironically, it was the Vidyasagar poster that even alerted the police about the missing man. "The Chintadripet police called Kalpana two days after they found Praveen's body because they had received the messages sent out by volunteers," says Vaishnavi of the Disabilities Rights Alliance.
When TNM contacted the Teynampet police station regarding the complaint, an officer who was investigating the case admitted that the FIR was filed only in the evening. "But what do you expect us to do?" he asks aggressively. "We are a central station and have 20 complaints coming at a time. We get so many missing complaints everyday. We have to prioritise what is important and what is not," he adds.
When asked if information on the missing person was sent out to police in the area the same day, he claims, "Yes yes. We informed everybody."
'Don't want another Praveen'
For Praveen's parents and the staff at Vidyasagar, this incident is nothing short of a nightmare.
"Praveen was vocal and if the police could not act in time to save him, then what about all the other students in the school who have a higher degree of disability?" asks Kalpana. "When someone with an intellectual disability is missing, the case cannot be treated in the same manner as the police would treat a regular case," she adds.
Manavalan himself has two more children who also suffer from varying degrees of intellectual disabilities. "Praveen was very bright and everyone loved him. If he couldn't be saved, I shudder to think what could happen to the others," he says.
In their letter to the Commissioner, the Disabilities Rights Alliance has demanded an inquiry into the lapses of the police. They also want bilingual and Easy Read versions of the current and revised standard operating protocol for missing vulnerable adults and intersectionally disadvantaged disabled children to be made public as part of TN Police’s citizen charter.
"A cross-departmental training module for first responders has to be developed in collaboration with disability advocacy groups on best practices to be adopted in cases of vulnerable people in need of help," says Vaishnavi. "In addition to this, the possibility of prior registration or intimation of a vulnerable person must be explored with target groups," she adds.
The group has also requested for CCTV footage from the Adyar Gate Area to the Anna Salai Head Post Office to help train individuals with disabilities on coping with a crisis.
The last request they have made is for 'Permission for a brief gathering to assemble outside the Post Office and pledge safer spaces for the more vulnerable among us and kickstart Praveen’s Protocol – an Indian equivalent of the US Amber Alert system.'
The Amber alert system originated in the United states in 1996 and is used to send alerts to civilians on missing children or child abductions.
"Praveen worked hard to get where he was and he was an example to his community that you can lead a respectable life with disability. Today he is gone and we do not want another life to be taken away in this manner," says Kalpana. "This is no longer only about him. We now have to fight for children, elderly, patients with dementia and other intellectually disabled people and their right to live," she adds.
A candlelight vigil is being organised in Valluvar Kottam on Monday at 5.30 pm. The gathering is not only a mark of respect for Praveen but is also a movement to create a more efficient system and a secure network for Tamil Nadu's vulnerable population.