In Tamil Nadu’s Vengaivayal village, hatred as the shape of water

In an incident that shocked Tamil Nadu last month, human faeces was found in an overhead tank supplying water to Dalit residents of Vengaivayal village in Pudukottai district. One month on, the perpetrators are yet to be identified and caught despite a CB-CID probe

January 28, 2023 02:32 pm | Updated January 30, 2023 02:45 pm IST - PUDUKOTTAI

A water tank which quenched the thirst of the Dalits has turned into a blot at Vengaivayal village in Pudukottai district. The 10,000-litre tank lies in disuse and barricaded.

A water tank which quenched the thirst of the Dalits has turned into a blot at Vengaivayal village in Pudukottai district. The 10,000-litre tank lies in disuse and barricaded. | Photo Credit: MOORTHY M

An uneasy calm shrouds Vengaivayal, a remote hamlet in the Annavasal block of Pudukottai district, even while a public outcry over the shocking incident of last month, when human faeces was found in an overhead tank that supplied water to the Dalits in the hamlet, refuses to die down in the State.

Watch | In Vengaivayal, human faeces were found in Dalit hamlet water tank

The hamlet, which can be reached by a barely motorable road branching off the Tiruchi-Pudukottai national highway at Sathyamangalam in Pudukottai district, is fully fortified by the police now as its 20-odd Dalit families are still struggling to come to terms with the public humiliation.

Police teams deployed at every nook and corner keep a close watch round-the-clock on “outsiders” entering Vengaivayal noting down their names, the registration numbers of their vehicles and inquiring as to the purpose of their visit.

Beneath the veneer of calmness, anger and trauma run deep among the residents of the hamlet. “What sin did we commit for someone to indulge in such a vicious act against us? Only a perverted mind could have done such an inhuman thing,” rues K. Rajarathinam, a woman resident, choking with emotion.

“This is the first time an incident of this type has happened at Vengaivayal and it should be the last. We are completely traumatised, and are yet to recover from the shock,” says 70-year-old R. Marikannu. 

An innocuous water tank which quenched the thirst of the Dalits has now turned into a blot on the village, and a symbol of shame. The 10,000-litre capacity tank lies in disuse now, and is barricaded.

Although the tank was constructed in 2016-2017, it was only last year that it began to supply water to the Adi Dravidar families. Until then, the Dalits were dependent on the 30,000-litre capacity tank at Eraiyur (which is contiguous to the Dalit colony), where people belonging to the intermediate castes (Mutharaiyars and Agamudayars) reside.

An overhead water tank under construction at Vengavayal village in Pudukottai district

An overhead water tank under construction at Vengavayal village in Pudukottai district | Photo Credit: MOORTHY M

“Every time we drink the water, we feel that we are consuming something contaminated,” say the women of the hamlet where potable water is being supplied through tankers daily now. New pipelines have been laid, and new taps installed in front of each house in the aftermath of the incident. A new water tank is also under construction at the hamlet. 

One month on, perpetrators at large

But these measures are of little solace to the Dalits. As the perpetrators of the heinous act are still at large, their agony is being prolonged. It has already been a month. It was on December 26 that the residents made the shocking discovery that has had a huge impact on their daily lives.

The incident came to light when villagers checked the tank after a few children had fallen sick a couple of days earlier. Suspicion arose that the problem could be due to possible water contamination.

The foul smell that emanated from the water supplied through the pipes prompted a few Dalit youth to climb up to the tank, where they found faeces floating on the water inside. 

The alarmed villagers immediately informed the Muthukadu panchayat president M. Padma and the CPI (M) MLA M. Chinnadurai of the Gandarvakottai (reserved) Assembly constituency, under which the hamlet falls.

Based on a complaint from the parent of an affected child, a case was booked at the Vellanur Police Station under Sections 3 (1) (b) and 3 (1) (x) of The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and Indian Penal Code sections 277 (fouling water of public spring or reservoir) and 328 (causing hurt by means of poison with intent to commit an offence).

Two-tumbler system, temple entry barred

Pudukottai Collector Kavitha Ramu, accompanied by a team of officials, inspected the village a day later. During the visit, the Collector detected the prevalence of the two-tumbler system and led a group of Dalits into the Sri Ayyanar temple at Eraiyur in close proximity to Vengaivayal, following complaints from the Dalits that they were not being allowed to enter the shrine but had to worship from outside.

A view of Ayyanar temple at Vengavayal village in Pudukottai district

A view of Ayyanar temple at Vengavayal village in Pudukottai district | Photo Credit: MOORTHY M

The owner of the tea stall, Mookkaiah, and an intermediate caste woman Singammal, who allegedly verbally abused the Dalits during the Collector’s temple entry, were booked and arrested under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. 

Alleging that they were facing caste discrimination, A. Subha, a resident said that the Dalits were not allowed to enter the Ayyanar temple at Eraiyur until the last week of December. But intermediate caste representatives from Eraiyur claimed that the Dalits had access to the temple and they even held big celebrations there during festivals.

“We have had cordial relationships and there has been no police case registered so far in the village. We too, are in utter shock [over the water contamination] and eager to know who the culprit is,” said M. Chitra, a resident who belongs to one of the intermediate castes at Eraiyur.

As an immediate fallout, a peace committee meeting was organised by the Revenue Department authorities in which representatives from the Adi Dravidars and intermediate castes agreed that stern action should be initiated against whoever had committed the act of mixing faeces in the tank.

It was also decided that all communities would extend their cooperation to ensure communal harmony and that people of all castes could offer worship at the temple without any discrimination.

Amidst protests and mounting criticism over the delay in arresting the culprits, the government authorities sought to reach out to the Dalits. Minister for Law S. Regupathy, Minister for Adi Dravida Welfare N. Kayalvizhi Selvaraj and Minister for Environment Siva V. Meyyanathan, participated in a ‘samathuva Pongal’ to promote social harmony.

But the move failed to convince the Dalits. “Only a few men and women from the intermediate castes attended the event,” alleged S. Muthulakshmi, a Dalit resident. 

Activists aghast, CB-CID probe on

Dalit activists are aghast at the incident. “There have been various forms of caste discrimination in the past, but this is the only incident where the drinking water of the Dalits has been contaminated with human faeces,” said a shocked A. Kathir, founder of Evidence, a Madurai-based non-profit organisation working for Dalit rights.

The overhead water tank at Vengavayal village in Pudukottai district has been barricaded.

The overhead water tank at Vengavayal village in Pudukottai district has been barricaded. | Photo Credit: MOORTHY M

Mr. Kathir also found fault with the district administration for deflecting attention from the issue. “The focus was shifted from the crime at Vengaivayal to Dalits being denied entry to the temple at Eraiyur,” he alleged and felt that the contamination of the water was not given due importance.

The district officials should have offered counselling to the Dalits to help them overcome their trauma, he said.

 Mr. Chinnadurai, the MLA, too, was left perplexed. All communities at Vengaivayal and nearby Eraiyur had been coexisting peacefully and there have been no police cases or issues in the past. “The village residents are unable to pinpoint anyone [who could have committed the crime],” he said. 

The CB-CID, which took over the probe, has since formed 10 teams and inquired with over 150 persons from different castes until now. Sources in the agency said more than one person could have been involved in the crime. 

As a fallout of the incident, a dedicated WhatsApp number has been notified by the district administration for the public to provide information on instances of caste discrimination in the district.

Meanwhile, in response to a public interest litigation petition for a probe into the caste-based discriminaton at Vengaivayal, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court has directed the State to file a status report.

Lack of proper housing, toilets and other issues persist

Dalits also complain that they do not even have a proper pathway to their burial ground. Many of their houses have developed cracks and the household toilets built in 2018 can hardly be used.

K. Karunakaran, District Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Officer, Pudukottai said. “A report has been sent to the government regarding the requirements of the Dalits in the Vengaivayal village. Once the funds are allocated, work to re-lay the roads leading to the burial ground will commence,” he said.

But more than anything else, the Dalit residents want the CB-CID to identify the culprits. They did not seem to have much faith in the initial investigation by the local police. “Instead of nabbing the culprits, the police found fault with our men and looked at us with suspicion,” alleged K. Kannadasan, a resident.

Echoing the sentiments of the village residents, Ms. Subha said: “All that we ask of the government is to find the culprit. We do not want anything else.”

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