MUMBAI: On July 8, Piyush Manush chained himself to a road roller to protest against the construction of an overbridge in Salem, Tamil Nadu. Manush and two of his associates had arrived at the spot to demonstrate against Southern Railway, which, they said, had neither given notice to the people in the area about the project nor acquired the land necessary to build it. Their demand? Compensation and rehabilitation to those affected by the construction.

Summarily, Manush and his three associates were arrested under various sections of the Indian Penal Code -- wrongful restraint, assault or criminal force to deter a government servant from discharging official duty and criminal intimidation. It is worth pointing out that the construction they were protesting against had been sanctioned by Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa.

The two associates were granted bail on July 14, whereas Manush was denied bail and kept in solitary confinement. Family and friends allege that he has been tortured in jail.

The arbitrary arrest, the denial of bail and the treatment meted out to Manush in prison has culminated into a citizens movement, organised under the banner “Stand With Piyush.” On Monday, over 300 citizens gathered in Salem in protest organised by Manush’s organisation, Salem Citizens Forum. Manush’s wife, Monica Sethia apprised the gathering of what she termed as human rights violations following Manush’s arrest. “He is under tremendous depression and could not speak frankly to me as officials were standing near us,” she said.

Founder of Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam Kolathur Mani said the arrest was unnecessary as the activist had been fighting for a cause in creating awareness among the public, reports The Hindu. He condemned the attack on Manush within prison and demanded action against the officials involved. N. Sivakumar, State coordinator for National Alliance for People’s Movement, said Manush not only restored water bodies, but also helped victims during the floods last year in Chennai and Cuddalore. His work was recognised at the national-level, he said and questioned why he was not released on bail when two other members were (as quoted in The Hindu).

A statement signed by organisations and activists including Medha Patkar, Prafulla Samantara, Lingraj Azad and others states, “National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) condemns this complete arbitrary arrest of environmental activist Piyush Sethia, who has been a crusader for several national level issues including Bhopal Gas Survivors, rights of adivasis and founder of Salem Citizen Forum. He has worked hard to change the face of the city Salem by organising citizens led efforts to revive lakes, forests, wet lands and so on and is know for his work of promoting alternative handicrafts and creating environmental awareness. His arrest on completely false charges can only be termed as political vendetta and an action by disgruntled officials who have been irked by several initiates Salem Ciizens Forum has taken over years now. It’s condemnable that he is being tortured in the prison and his bail plea too has been rejected on not tenable grounds, while other two arrested along with him as has been granted bail.”

Another statement addressed to CM Jayalalitha states, “We write as concerned citizens and environmental justice activists in support of Piyush Sethia of Salem, Tamil Nadu who has been arrested, denied bail and beaten inside Salem Central prison.” It goes on to highlight the commendable work done by the imprisoned activist: “Piyush has done commendable work in the field of Environmental Protection and Climate Change mitigation. We would like to bring to your notice some of them:

1. He leads Salem Citizens Forum to revive many water bodies in Salem city like Mukaneri,Ammapettai eri Kundukkal eri, Ismailkhan eri, Arisipalayam Theppakulam and Pallappatti well.

2. He has created a co-operative forest in Dharmpuri extending upto 150 acres, with the support of his friends and well wishers. This mountain forest acts as a water catchment area for Ettimarathupatti Canal which supplies irrigation water to 17 villages in the vicinity.

3. He has led many citizens’ initiative to protect the natural resources of Salem and its surrounding areas. He has also initiated many green and sustainable livelihood projects and protected the Salem, Yercaud and Hoggenekkal Dam areas from environmental damage.

4. In the recent floods of Chennai and Cuddalore, Piyush and members of SCF, Nizhal and Dharmapuri People’s Forum mobilized 35 containers of relief material and tirelessly worked to reach the materials in time. This won Piyush a CNN-IBN award recently. He was also named as one of the advisors of Nilam, Neer, Neethi (Land, Water, Justice) initiative of Ananda Vikatan group which was kicked off following the floods to protect water bodies in Tamil Nadu.”

It is perhaps the above people-oriented work that Manush has devoted his life to that has brought him in direct conflict with the state in Tamil Nadu. In 2008, Manush took on the mining companies in Tamil Nadu, educating and mobilising the villagers to protest. His hard work paid off, and a stay was put on the project.

In 2010, Manush was arrested for his involvement with the Campaign for Justice and Peace, which was fighting against human rights violations in Chhattisgarh. He was charged with sedition. It was in this year that Manush founded the Salem Citizens Forum, with the organisation taking on a host of environmental tasks -- including cleaning and restoring the Mookaneri Lake.

Manush’s arrest, therefore, is politically significant. As Selva Ganapathy of Aid India said (as quoted in The News Minute), the arrest “sends out a wrong message to the public that anyone who questions the government or activities of the government, this is what happens to them.”

The ‘Stand With Piyush’ movement is the response to all of the above.