Traffic Ramaswamy - one man in Chennai everyone needs to know about

This man has lost count of how many PILs he has filed
Traffic Ramaswamy - one man in Chennai everyone needs to know about
Traffic Ramaswamy - one man in Chennai everyone needs to know about

“Don’t worry. I can take care of it. I am too thick-skinned for such allegations," the Chief Justice of India HL Dattu said on December 8, 2014 when a petition accusing him of taking bribe came up for hearing before his bench.

The petition pushed for an enquiry into the allegation that the CJI himself had taken a bribe to grant bail to former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa on October 17. Though the petition was brought before the bench by a Tamil Nadu based lawyer R. Krishnamurthy, the man behind the petition was a Chennai-based social-legal activist, K.R. Ramaswamy more popularly known as - Traffic Ramaswamy.

A name regularly-featured in news articles across Tamil Nadu, Traffic Ramaswamy has been responsible for filing over 400 public interest litigations over the span of over two decades. Separated from family, and found in his office from morning to night, this man has been responsible for a number of changes in Tamil Nadu.

Traffic Ramaswamy is a fragile looking 80-year-old man in person. Unwell after a recent trip to New Delhi over a petition regarding Jayalalithaa, a number of people seeking his time last Saturday were turned back by men in khaki uniform. “He is not well. Please come tomorrow,” said Ananth, a police constable provided exclusively for Traffic Ramaswamy’s round-the-clock protection. He was granted protection after he was attacked by a man in 2002.

"It was October 2002. I was standing on the road adjacent to the High Court of Madras regulating traffic when a man came near me and asked what the time was. When I was about to see my wrist watch he attacked me with a knife. The attempt was to kill me but my life was saved. I lost the vision in my right eye," said Ramaswamy as he recollected that day.

C Rajagopalachari, his role model

Born on April 1, 1934 to an agricultural family, he spent a large part of his teenage years helping his parents in agriculture. At the age of 18, he decided to work as a helper to C. Rajagopalachari, the then Chief Minister of Madras, the man who Ramaswamy considers his role model. "Rajaji taught me to always question the wrong. He also told me that I should always listen to those who criticize me. We may find our mistakes through them, he had told me." I have since then followed his advice. “I even saw Gandhi in Chennai when I was 10 years old,” he said.

After learning weaving in 1954, at the age of 20, Ramaswamy joined Binny Mills as a weaving master where he worked till 1971. He voluntarily retired and it was then that he started developing interest in social service.

Turning to activism

A founding member of the Home Guards in Chennai, he first turned to regulating traffic in the city. In those days, he could be seen regulating traffic in arterial and traffic-hit areas in the city.  It was, however, in 1992 that the prefix to his name "Traffic" came. Since then, the name somehow stuck on.

 Spending hours and hours on city roads, he studied traffic issues, harassment of street vendors by police and the practice of demanding bribes from motorists. Soon, he began taking pictures of erring police officers and sending them to the city police commissioner. Within no time, his list of enemies began to grow. The police started harassing him and filed false cases against him. "I was arrested and put behind bars seven times," he says. 

Saga of PILs

In 1998, he filed a Public Interest Litigation challenging the state government's decision to construct a fly over on the NSC Bose road near the High Court. "Parry’s Corner is a vibrant area in Chennai and there were a lot of street vendors there. The government officials used to earn a lot of money every month by taking bribes from each of the shops here. As the number of illegal vendors increased, the road got congested and there were traffic issues. The government rather than clearing off these shops planned to construct a fly over so that the shops could remain and they could continue getting money from them. When the construction began there were many accidents and 20 people died in road accidents. This made me file a PIL in the court and I got the plan stayed." 

In 2002, he filed a PIL against motorized three wheeler make-shift auto-rickshaws that were used for selling fish. "Bikes were stolen and those engines were used for such auto-rickshaws. They did not come under the Motor Vehicles Act because the government was unable to decide under which category they would come. Without regulation the number of such vehicles increased and there were a lot of accidents. I wrote to the Transport Secretary asking him to issue a tender so that manufacturers could come forward and manufacture these legally. He could not find any manufacturer. It was then that I filed a PIL pleading the court to declare these as illegal. Nalini Chidambaram, top lawyer and wife of former Union minister Chidambaram represented fishermen. They offered me Rs. 4 lakh to withdraw my case, but I did not. The court held my view correct and declared these vehicles as illegal. The fishermen community got very angry with me because my PIL affected their jobs."

These are just a few of the major PILs that this crusader filed and won. He has lost count of how many he has filed till now. "Somewhere between 400-500," he says.

There have also been instances when his PILs were in fructuous and he was fined by the courts. The most recent one was his petition that stated that the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu O Pannerselvam was taking orders from his predecessor J Jayalalithaa who had been ineligible to continue following conviction in a disproportionate assets case.

The High Court of Madras dismissed his petition calling it a publicity stunt and fined him Rs. 25,000. His appeal in the Supreme Court against the High Court order was also quashed.  But none of this has dampened Traffic Ramaswamy’s spirits.

But activism has cost him much. An eye, quite a few friends, and his family. His wife, whom he married in 1964 without taking any money as dowry, stays separately. "My father did not attend my marriage because I refused to take dowry," he says.

But his wife is scared to live with him. "People threaten me and my wife and children are afraid of all this. For twelve years now I have been staying alone in a small room." He still visits his daughter, “But I don’t stay for long,” he adds. 

In March 2015, he was arrested by the Chennai police at 4 am over a complaint by a businessman. Traffic Ramaswamy had personally torn down banners of J Jayalalithaa that had been erected illegally, an act that not many in Chennai would have dared to do. The businessman told the police that Traffic Ramaswamy threatened him when he complained that traffic was being held up due to him tearing down banners. But the Madras High Court came down heavily on the Chennai police, questioning the necessity of arresting an octogenarian activist at 4 am.

The dingy room he uses as his office situated in the back of a restaurant on Parry’s Corner is tiny, overflowing with documents and people. “Everything around me has been donated by well-wishers,” he said pointing at his desktop computer and the furniture. The room itself was given for his use, free of rent.

The police are known to fear him, and many government officials think twice before entering into a tussle with the octogenarian. But the man has a whole lot of well-wishers. 

Apart from the policeman hovering around looking at us with a keen watchful eye, sitting in Ramaswamy’s room is S Yogambal, assisting him.

“She helps me. But I don’t have money to pay her,” said Ramaswamy, his eyes glowing, voice full of pride.

Yogambal had been fighting with the local police over a personal issue. When she made no headway, someone suggested Traffic Ramaswamy’s name to her. All it took was a phone call from the activist to the Commissioner of Police to solve that issue. She had joined him at work then. Today, she works with him full-time.

It’s not just for impactful and proper enactment of laws that Ramaswamy has been fighting for.

Apart from his social work, he has also mentored other activists who have taken up causes across the state. One such person is Fathima Traffic Ramaswamy, who has taken on the mighty sand mining mafia and many others in southern Tamil Nadu. Once a homeless orphaned child, Fathima, joined ranks with Traffic Ramaswamy when she was young. Today, she is a member of Traffic Ramaswamy’s political party Makkal Paadukappu Kazhagam. "She used to see me when I regulated traffic and once asked me if she could join me in my work. I immediately accepted and since then she has been with me, learning a lot. Today all officials of the southern districts of Tamil Nadu are scared of her. What I did in 40 years she has achieved in just 2 years," he says proudly.

As we were leaving, the diminutive 82 year-old was seen yelling into his phone, threatening the man (presumably a government official) at the other end with dire consequences if he did not abide by the laws. His voice was hoarse, but the strength in it carried his message.  

(This story was first written in December 2014 and a few updates were added). 

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