Chennai Techie Subhasri’s Death: Why the Banner Culture Needs to Go

Social Commentary

Chennai Techie Subhasri’s Death: Why the Banner Culture Needs to Go

Illustration: Arati Gujar

On September 12, 23-year-old Subhasri Ravi died in an accident in Chennai while driving home from work on her scooter. A hoarding mounted on a divider collapsed on her. She lost her balance, fell on the road, and a speeding lorry ran over her body. Witnesses say the lorry driver rammed his brakes to avoid hitting her but it was too late. Subhasri later succumbed to severe injuries at the hospital. The hoarding was an announcement of AIADMK councillor S Jayagopal’s son’s wedding, accompanied by images of sycophantic party leaders. 

What makes this incident especially tragic is that there are far too many people complicit in her death, but there is still no clear trail of accountability. As of now, an FIR has been filed against the lorry driver, the banner’s printing press has been sealed off, and the AIADMK councillor has been booked for negligence. Protesters are urging further action to be taken against both the politicians who flouted regulations by erecting an unsafe hoarding without obtaining permission and the officials who did not question its installation or dismantle it. Meanwhile, the blame is being tossed between civic bodies, the police, and political parties as if it were a hot potato.  

As the ruling and opposition parties are scrambling about in damage control mode and pulling down all other billboards across the city, Subhasri’s family and loved ones mourn her. It appears that loss of life is the only way to force elected representatives into action.

The question is: How many lives? 

In 2017, 32-year old K Ragupathi died in Coimbatore after colliding into a wooden structure erected on a main road by the AIADMK for the centenary celebrations of the party founder MG Ramachandran. In 2018, four people died and several others were seriously injured in Pune when an illegal iron hoarding collapsed near a railway station. In April this year, a board that came apart because of heavy rain and winds fell and killed two men in Tamil Nadu’s Namakkal: S Kala and S Mohanraj, a doctor and ambulance driver respectively. 

With every incident there has been public outrage and legislative outcomes that enforce rules for safety. After the outrage over Subhasri’s death, the Madras High Court has reprimanded the government for failing to implement the ban on illegal hoardings despite passing several court orders. It has directed the Tamil Nadu government to pay an interim compensation of five lakh to her family. Two years ago, it had passed a ruling banning the erecting of disruptive structures and hoardings of living people in public spaces. 

OOH (out-of-home) advertising is a major channel used by politicians for endorsements and campaigning. Signages at bus stops or on buses, outside train stations, posters on lampposts and trees, and flex boards erected at major junctions dot our cities and villages. The formats are similar with little creative effort: Smiling pictures of regional leaders, mostly mugshots, along with enlarged images of national party heads and the party logo. The inescapable posters can be part of campaign propaganda that announce welfare schemes or party mantras, but they often crop up overnight to wish leaders for their birthdays or in case of a festival.  

The banner culture is nothing but a branding tool being abused by politicians. It is not something that citizens benefit from, the idea is never to inform the voters but to massage the egos of political leaders.

Despite being a proven risk to public safety and an erosion of public spaces, politicians refuse to relinquish outdoor advertising as a communication medium. The total spend on outdoor advertising by all parties for the general elections this year was estimated at close to ₹ 400 crore. It’s scary to comprehend that such a vast amount of money was utilised to “sell” leadership in a developing nation. 

Tamil Nadu, in particular, has always nurtured a culture of ostentatiously acknowledging their heroes, both politicians and film stars – living or dead. Even the high court has accepted this partly as it stated in the 2017 ruling that the ban is restricted to “living people”, understanding the relevance that the icons like MGR and Jayalalitha continue to have in people’s minds. And it is this reverie that is milked by present-day leaders. Where once party workers vied for wall space to paint slogans and pictures on, the move to vinyl banners has become a cheaper alternative without the risks of lawsuits for property defacement. 

It’s also interesting to note that in many cases, the posters are initiatives by lower-level party supporters as efforts to gain visibility by seniors and grow their own careers. AIADMK’s Twitter post on Subhasri’s death proves this: “Some overenthusiastic cadres put these banners without realising the adverse impact it has on society & general public,” it said.  

But party cadres are only replicating what they have seen at bigger events. In Tamil Nadu, especially, the banner culture became popular during the time of Jayalalithaa. In fact, JP Krishna, who rose to fame making cutout, was dubbed as the “cutout king” and is credited for making a poster as high as 150 feet. Back in the day, when Jayalithaa would leave the house for an event, banners would be placed all along from her residence in Chennai to the venue.    

The banner culture is nothing but a branding tool being abused by politicians. It is not something that citizens benefit from, the idea is never to inform the voters but to massage the egos of political leaders. In the age of social media, where information can be passed to residents via SMSes and WhatsApp, banners should have become redundant. But these unavoidable eyesores refuse to go away because the only people whom they are intended for – political leaders – continue to seek validation through them.   

Subhasri’s death has brought the focus back on political hoardings and their futility.  The hashtag “WhokilledSubhasri” trended online over the weekend, but I wonder how much of it will translate into long-term change. When Ragu died in Coimbatore, people demanded action and painted words “Who killed Ragu” on the road besides the accident spot. Another bunch of residents in Kalyan near Mumbai were so fed up with political banners that they ingeniously put up their own hoarding; a collage of dogs’ photos and birthday wishes for one in particular, Max Bhai. 

But the outrage is short-lived. All is soon forgotten and in no time, we go back to laughing at the spelling of “Cungratulaton” on an errant hoarding. Political apathy thrives on chaos and the public’s short-term memory. How long will it be before Subhasri becomes another name lost to a callous nation that is good at being reactive but does little to follow up on its rage?