When 65-year-old Sandanam was asked to come to Amma’s campaign meet at Vriddhachalam on Monday, she readily agreed. The promise was a chance to see Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa up close, Rs 250 for attending the rally and a packet of biryani. The event though turned out to be a nightmare. Sandanam, like hundreds of others, was caught in a stampede at the rally resulting from poor planning and the excessive summer heat.
Two people have died but the cause remains unclear. People say they waited for hours in the searing heat with no shade and many without water or food.
“They gave us only Rs 250 but the promised biryani did not come,” said Sandanam speaking to Firstpost. “The heat was oppressive, and there was barely any water being distributed. We were begging people for water to drink. I ate a banana which the person sitting next to me had brought. So I was a little better off than the others,” she said.
Six women who were present at the rally were admitted to the ICU at the Vriddhachalam Government Hospital following the stampede that ensued at the venue of the public meeting. Two functionaries of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) were carried out of the venue as they had collapsed. Radhakrishnan (45) from Jeyankondan and Karunakaran (50) from Chidambaram died due to unknown causes en route to the Mundiyambadi and Cuddalore Government Hospitals respectively.
What caused the stampede?
AIADMK workers who were present at the venue told Firstpost on condition of anonymity that each of the 13 candidates introduced at the Vriddhachalam public meeting by Jayalalithaa, were given targets for the number of people they had to bring to the venue. “Each of them was asked to bring 20,000 people to the rally,” said the source. “People from Ariyalur and Perambalur were brought to the venue at 9am itself and were sitting under the hot sun all day. They were not allowed to leave the venue once they entered it, because security was tight and they would not have been able to come back in,” he said.
He also alleged that Rs 50,000 was given to each of the organisers — block level AIADMK workers — to arrange food and water for the crowds they had brought. But like Sandanam recounted, many of those in the crowd did not get either food or water.
Eyewitnesses who did not wish to be named told Firstpost that once Jayalalithaa came to the stage by around 3pm, many in the audience began to try to leave. “They were not able to withstand the heat and there was no water either,” said the eyewitness. “Once they got a glimpse of Amma, they all wanted to leave.”
Women, who were gathered at the front right hand side of the stage, were the most affected, with a steady stream of people trying to leave the venue even as others surged forward to catch a glimpse of the AIADMK Supremo. A stampede then ensued and a number of women were caught in the crush. What made matters worse was that although there were eight gates into the venue itself, there was only one entrance from the road leading up to the venue, say eyewitnesses, meaning there was only one route in or out.
Police and hospital authorities are tight lipped as to the cause of death of the two AIADMK workers. Although there has been no official word from the party itself, its mouthpiece Jaya TV ran a line on the channel for some time, stating that Jayalalithaa condoled the death of two party workers due to illness.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, a 60-year-old man died and five women, including a police constable, were injured at Jaya’s rally held in Chidambaram. A stampede ensued as party workers charged towards the stage and the senior citizen from Ariyalur was caught in the crush. Police though, at the time, alleged that he died due to “chest pain”.
Jayalalithaa’s meeting was scheduled for 3pm, a very hot time of day, due to the fact that she is traveling by helicopter to and from campaign venues. She left from Chennai by chopper in the morning and returned to Chennai after the rally. Since the chopper cannot take off or land after sunset, her rally was scheduled for a time of day when the sun was beating down hard upon the crowd which had already been present for hours.
The author tweets @Kavita_Kishore