To any casual visitor to our city or a concerned resident of it, one of the biggest eyesores is the plethora of posters disfiguring any and every available surface – compound walls, abandoned vehicles, corrugated sheets, roadside water tanks and rubbish bins – none of which is spared. The administration is largely indifferent to it apart from a few half-hearted notifications to the effect that the practice is undesirable. The political parties are, of course, the biggest culprits. At a time when the problem appeared to defy a solution, a citizens’ initiative to clean up the walls has just begun. This may yet be the best thing that could have happened to our city, but it is still early days yet.

#WakeUpMadras is how the group is identified on social media. And by its own description of itself, it is a coming together of concerned “men, women, boys and girls.” They prefer to remain unidentified, for they claim, and rightly so, that when a name is introduced, a number of other equations – of caste, gender and, in Tamil Nadu, much worse – political slants – can become involved and spoil the initiative. Their first effort is wall art, which they believe is a strong medium for bringing to the fore several social issues. They are also of the view that the public surfaces are not the domain of the vested political and commercial interests but those of the citizen. The first demonstration of their presence is a graffiti of a dog with its hind leg lifted up. Below that is a message that reads in Tamil, “Are you a dog?”, followed by the hashtag of WakeUpMadras. The target audience is obvious – that class of men who think nothing of committing what is euphemistically known as ‘nuisance’.

Hopefully, #WakeUpMadras will be allowed to peacefully exist and carry on publicising our social ills. However, this group is not alone. There are others such as Labs, which is another such initiative. The students of the Stella Maris College have now begun decorating their rather long frontage with some wonderful art. The Corporation, as we have seen, has also chipped in with some forceful messages on its flyovers where it has asked those who paste posters to think twice before doing so, for the walls have been painted with the taxpayers’ money. This appears to have had the desired result, for the pillars and walls of flyovers have remained free of posters.

And so are the days when we had to cover our walls with paintings of our deities or paste glazed tiles bearing their images to prevent any kind of misuse a thing of the past? Not really, for old habits die hard and political parties, private advertisers, magazines and film companies think nothing of disfiguring the walls of our city. But these citizen initiatives appear to have stalled them to an extent.

It may come as a surprise to many that Tamil Nadu was one of the first States to enact legislation preventing the disfiguring of public and private wall spaces. The Tamil Nadu Open Spaces (prevention of disfigurement) Act was passed in 1959! But it has remained only on paper, with the law enforcers turning a blind eye to its violation. In the last decade, at least one political party when in power, began an initiative of getting artists to paint murals depicting our State’s history and culture on the walls. This was a praiseworthy though short-lived effort, for a change in regime saw the plan being abandoned and the posters returning to the walls.

Ultimately, any law is effective if the citizens take to it. Similarly, it is for the citizens to protect their public wall spaces. Which is why initiatives such as #WakeUpMadras will hopefully deliver results in the long run.