Published: 08th December 2017
His way or the highway: Why Traffic Ramaswamy is one tough 'PIL' to swallow!
Beaten, threatened and abandoned. This octagenarian's spirits have never dipped as he continues to crusade for Chennai's rights without missing a beat
You can come any time after 8.30 any morning, he said toothily over the phone and then went on to repeat 'God bless you' at least three times before he hung up. It was, well, an unusual interview request. Then again, he is an unusual man.
Some people call him a menace. Others make memes about him. There has been a slew of jokes made about his 'pesky' campaigning for the public good in pop culture cinema. Whether you love him or hate him, the simple truth is, it's damn near difficult to ignore K R Ramaswamy. Or Traffic Ramaswamy, as he is popularly known. And that's quite an achievement for an 84-year-old man whose physical stature can be described as 'featherweight', at best.
Now living in a cramped street in Parry's Corner, his modest office-cum-residence reflects the spirit and simplicity of the tiny little man with a lion's heart. Apart from being one of the largest PIL (Public Interest Litigation) filers in India, Ramaswamy’s causes include fighting for those whose voices are muffled in the endless files lying half-eaten in government offices. His tirades and endless crusading against the government has won him friends and foes. Which is why the Court has assigned him protection for the last 14 years.
Total blast from the past
As we enter his rather ramshackle abode, a uniformed cop sits at the entrance, revolver strapped firmly to the holster. Does he mind the constant security? It's sort of a necessity after he was assaulted outside the Madras High Court for obtaining a ban on motorised fish carts. The assault damaged his sight but the scar is something that he proudly shows off. As we move inside, we notice that the walls are covered with pictures of felicitations and award ceremonies — the kind that will make any career diplomat blush. But Ramaswamy is no diplomat. He's as point-blank as they come. And he uses his pen with the same deadly potency as his videos on his YouTube channel — which he shoots and uploads with the help of his assistant.
He's been under police protection for over a decade
"You know, when I was a teenager, a Tahsildar stopped me from carrying rice that we grew in my father's home in North Arcot back to Madras. The rice came under the ration category and even then he didn't allow me to take it because I was a child," he adds with a gleam in his eyes. His voice grows serious when he says, "I warned him that he would face problems." All of 14, an enraged Ramaswamy rushed home and penned a letter to the Collector of North Arcot that cost him a princely three paise. The next day the tahsildar appeared at his house with a letter from the Collector addressed to Ramaswamy. He was asked to warn the man so the latter could resume his duties. And Ramaswamy needed to sign the letter before he could join duty. But that wasn't the sweetest bit of vindication. "He also returned with the same bag of rice," proudly states the son of a Congress worker.
'You've got to keep speaking up'
As we move around from one room to the other, we realise that all of his life experiences instil a lot of inner strength. The kind of strength you need to keep speaking out, even if no one is listening. “We are a democracy. For the people, by the people, with the people, we can bring about this change. But we have to speak about it. We must not be silenced,” he says radically. And with that belief, he has gone on to transform Chennai with protests, campaigning and litigation that has changed the way we live our lives today — from getting a bad road relaid to asking the Chief Minister questions that no one else would dare.
He has successfully forced the MTC to introduce several bus-routes to decongest the roads
Roads hold a special place in his psyche. Perhaps it's because he spent years regulating traffic or maybe it's a result of the amount of travel he does, but he is extremely critical of roadwork that goes on endlessly for months, bringing no relief and more accidents when it is done.
He has successfully forced the MTC to introduce several bus-routes to decongest the roads and has over 100 cases pending in court. "Good governance means interacting with the public on local issues. Even if it is to set up a street as a one-way, the locals must be consulted," he adds.
Roadways were much better 20 years ago. They would patch the roads maybe once in a year or every five months. Today, every three months the road is being patched up. Why?
Traffic Ramaswamy, Activist
Behind the Traffic moniker
This ability to make the government tremble is what has made him a man both revered and feared by anyone who is not "for the people". Marching on with his pen and camera, Traffic Ramaswamy, an endearment earned by his voluntary work in regulating traffic near the busy Parry's Corner, is not one to shy away from calling a spade a spade. Even if it means stepping on the government's rather overgrown toes. Criticising the supercilious and unprofessional ways in which the administration deals with the public, he asks, "Is it fair? How can they expect people to obey the rules when they themselves have no regard for the law?
While his accusations and rants about the State government may seem insignificant to most, his brief foray into politics acted as a wake-up call — showing politician the sheer power of the common man. At the age of 18, he managed an election campaign with his father and was a personal assistant to the then cabinet minister K Venkataswamy Naidu from 1952 to 1954. Despite years of political interaction and a fearless spirit to work for the people, Ramaswamy has been more than vocal of his disdain for India's government. His secret weapon, though, is to always have proof. And use it like a harpoon. "If they are doing something wrong, question them but always carry proof," he says.
To him, the current government's lackadaisical attitude shows no growth and is full of promises but no deliverance. "It is worse than a dictatorship, even a dictator cannot do that," he says of the impositions charted out and enforced by the Modi government. "They promote illegal activities, this system needs to be done away with. They are not for the public," he bellows, his voice rising above the incessant honking from the road outside. Not that there's much love lost for the UPA either. Ramaswamy has stood for posts various elections over the years — even opposing political heavyweights in fights that were doomed from the start — but his mere presence can daunt leaders into running a clean campaign. And that's a result far beyond the paltry numbers of votes he has garnered.
He is nowhere near done as he states that he hopes to live up to the age of 120
You're never above the law. #Respect
This has done little to change his belief in the law, which he believes is the only medium the public needs to address their problems. That and contacting authorities directly can avoid a lot of corruption. "People must go to the police or officials. Running to MLAs will do nothing. How will it help you? You must address your queries and problems directly with the officials and they will surely help," he firmly states. His reverence for men in uniform could have to do with his duty in the Home Guard when it first began in 1963. Under Commander Swaminathan, who was a Criminal Lawyer, Ramaswamy joined the fifth division in Kilpauk and later retired as a Platoon Commander with two stars on his shirt lapels.
As we get him to show us his rather oversized tablet — which he holds to his ear to take calls — the conversation steers to the biopic that veteran filmmaker S A Chandrasekhar is making on him, He points to the latest ad, cut out and pasted on the wall — holding a place of pride next to his many trophies. Talking of the film, he says he is excited and aware of it. "I hope is that it creates awareness and changes peoples perception of issues," he says humbly. A 'thick-skinned' man, as the Chief Justice in 2014, H L Dattu had called him, Ramaswamy has proven himself to be just that to all those on the other side of his fight.
Yet, he is nowhere near done as he proudly states that he hopes to "live up to the age of 120" and continue to bring fear to the hearts of those who do wrong.
In 1972, the first and last Governor General of India, C Rajagopalachari had once said to him, "I see from your face, you will become a big man." Rajaji may have been wrong, physically speaking, but as the tiny old man rises above all the darkness with a smile and a file full of documents, you know that he was spot on is so many other ways.