After five Dalit children of Vengavayal village in Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai district fell ill and were hospitalised on December 24, the villagers inspected their common water tank. To their great shock, they discovered that the drinking water source of the Dalit families had been contaminated with human excreta. It was the doctors who treated the children who alerted the villagers to a possible contamination of the water. The tank was cleaned with bleach on December 26, and pipe connections to the houses were replaced two weeks later.
Kanakaraj, the father of a six-year-old girl who was among those hospitalised, filed a complaint with the Vellanur police after the villagers found out about the contaminated water tank. His daughter was initially admitted to the Primary Health Center (PHC) in Cauvery Nagar, from where she was referred to the Pudukkottai Government Hospital for further treatment. He was in Madurai when his daughter was admitted to the hospital, where her temperature shot up, causing family members to panic. "I'm a folklore artist and I was in Madurai for a performance. I left Madurai after my wife told me that our daughter was hospitalised,” he said. Based on Kanakaraj’s complaint, the police booked unknown persons under sections 277 (fouling water of public spring or reservoir) and 328 (causing hurt by means of poison, etc.) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and sections of 3(1)(b) (dumping obnoxious substances in the premises of SC/ST persons), 3(1)(x) (intentional insult or intimidation with intent to humiliate), and 3(2)(va) (offences mentioned in the Act’s Schedule, punishable in accordance with the IPC) of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (SC/ST Act).
A water tank was constructed in Vengavayal for storage purposes eight years ago in 2014. However, it was only in May 2022, after the water scarcity in the summer, that Dalits were permitted by the dominant castes to take water from the new tank. Until then, they were dependent on the tank inside the residential area of the dominant caste Mutharaiyars. When asked about any prevalent caste discrimination against the 35 Dalit families in the village, Kanakaraj said, "We were not allowed to enter the Ayyanar temple in Eraiyur for generations, until the last week of December 2022. Our grandfathers beat the parai (a percussion instrument) at the funerals of dominant castes. From my father’s generation on, we refused to beat it.” Describing the traumatic incident, he said, "There are rumours circulating that we did this to get attention. Even animals don't eat their own faeces.” He further added, “When the water contamination came to light, we couldn’t point to any particular reason or incident that could have triggered this crime against us. Our interactions with dominant castes — Mutharaiyars and Agamudayars — in the village have been casual and without incident.”
Siva V Meyyanathan, Environmental Minister of Tamil Nadu, visited the village on December 29 and promised the people that the culprit would be arrested soon. The Minister had also ordered officials to construct a new water tank. An 11-member police team was formed after social activists marked their discontent over the investigation. Till January 10, the police have recorded the statements of 70 persons from the Vengavayal locality. No one has been arrested in the case so far.
Eleven days after the Minister’s visit, no progress is visible. The villagers expressed their disappointment in the government. “If this had happened to the dominant castes, the police would have promptly found the culprits. The slow progress on the part of the government raises several questions. The government has failed us,” Kanakaraj said. According to Kanakaraj, the 10,000-litre tank was cleaned on December 26 with bleaching powder, but the pipes were changed only between January 5-8. “They thought the bleaching process would kill the germs in the tank and hoses. But whenever I even brought a cup of tea to my mouth, all I could think of was the contaminated water tank and the water we drank. What is the government going to do about this?” he asked.
Kathir, the founder-director of Evidence, a Madurai-based organisation fighting for Dalit and tribal rights, said, “the administration should’ve at least set up medical camps and psychotherapy counselling till people felt better and came out of the trauma. But they failed the people in every sense.” He urged the government to take severe action against the culprits and demanded compensation. Kathir demanded that the government register a case under 3(1)(a) (forcing to eat or drink inedible or obnoxious substances) of the SC/ST Act, instead of 3(1)(b). Cases under Section 3(1)(b) pertain to acts with intent to cause injury, insult, or annoyance to SC/ST persons by dumping excreta, waste matter, carcasses, or any other obnoxious substance in their premises or neighbourhood. “But the Vengavayal incident is different in that people consumed contaminated water, so the case should be registered under 3(1)(a) and the government should compensate the community members,” he said. “The police usually register such cases under 3(1)(a), which entitles victims to Rs 1.2 lakhs in compensation. But Vellanur police registered the case under 3(1)(b), which awards compensation only to the complainant and refuses to see the larger picture in a crime that affected the entire community,” Kathir further added.
Dalit rights activists also expressed disappointment in the government’s move to deviate attention from the issue. Kathir’s social media posts highlight how the focus was deliberately shifted from the Vengavayal crime to another in Eraiyur when Pudukkottai district collector Kavitha Ramu and superintendent of police (SP) Vandita Pandey inspected the two villages on December 27. In Eraiyur, which is a mere 200m from Vengavayal, Dalits were restricted from entering an Ayyanar temple. Not only did the collector and SP facilitate Dalits’s entry to the temple, they also ensured the arrests of Singammal, a Mutharaiyar man, under the SC/ST Act. The police also arrested Mukkaiah, a local tea shop owner belonging to the Agamudayar caste who practised a double tumbler system by serving Dalits in separate tumblers. The Vengavayal issue, on the other hand, was given no importance.
What happened in Vengavayal is not an isolated event in Tamil Nadu. In 2002, two Dalits Murugesan and Ramasamy were forced to eat human excreta in Thinniyam village of Trichy district. Faeces-mixed water was poured on Muthumari, a Dalit man, in Melaurappanur, Madurai, in 2003. In 2004, Sangan, a Dalit man, was made to drink urine. In 2019, Kollimallai from Thiruvanduthurai village of Thiruvarur district was force-fed human excreta and the perpetrators urinated on his body. “In the last 10 years, nearly 20 such incidents have been reported. But the conviction rate in such crimes is only 5-6% in Tamil Nadu. The government should compensate the victims from the SC/ST fund and appoint a grievance redressal committee headed by IAS officers in Vengavayal village to resolve the grievances,” Kathir demanded.