This man has lost count of how many PILs he has filed
Murderers roam around freely instead they arrest me: Traffic Ramaswamy about his arrest to TNM
“Somebody will say I have taken Rs 1,000 crore to grant bail. Don’t worry. I can take care of it. I am too thick-skinned for such allegations,” the Chief Justice of India H.L. Dattu said on December 8 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 lawyer R. Krishnamurthy, the man behind the petition is a Chennai-based social-legal activist, K.R. Ramasamy more popularly known as – Traffic Ramaswamy.
A regularly-featured name 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 , or KR Ramaswamy is a fragile-looking 82 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 Ramasamy’s round-the-clock protection after he was attacked by a man and threatened with his life 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 animatedly as he recollected that day.
Born in 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 question the wrongs always. 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 when he voluntarily retired.
Post retirement he started developing interest in social service, and soon developed an interest in regulating traffic in Chennai. He could regularly be seen regulating traffic in major 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 cops 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 for seven times,” he says.
In 1998 he filed a PIL challenging the state government’s decision to construct a fly over on the NSC Bose road near the High Court. “Parrys is a main area in Chennai and there were a lot of street vendors here. 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 like Bullet were stolen and its engine was 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. For the fishermen it was former Union minister Chidambaram’s wife who was the lawyer. She 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 the major PILs that he 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 infructuous 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 who had been ineligible to continue following conviction in a disproportionate assets case. The High Court of Madras dismissed his petition calling it publicity and fined his Rs. 25,000. His appeal in the Supreme Court against the High Court order was also quashed.
All this hasn’t stopped him in his path. The activism has cost him much. An eye, quite a few enemies, 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 and 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 said.
Financially, all this effort has not helped him. The dingy room he uses as his office situated in the back of a restaurant on Parrys high road is tiny, overflowing with documents and people. “Everything around me is donated by well-wishers,” he said pointing at his desktop computer, the furniture and the room itself which he was given for his use, free of rent.
Even though, the police are known to fear him, and many government officials take a second before entering into a tussle with the octogenarian, the man has a whole lot of well-wishers.
Apart from the cop hovering around looking at us with a keen watchful eye, sitting in Ramasamy’s room is S Yogambal, assisting him.
“I don’t pay her anything to work for me,” said Ramaswamy, his eyes glowing, voice full of pride. Yogambal had been fighting for an issue with the local police. When she made no headway, someone suggested the name ‘Traffic Ramaswamy’. All it took was a phone call 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 truthful enaction of laws that Ramaswamy has been fighting for. The man apart from his work, has also seeded his concept of social work in a young girl Fathima, once a homeless orphaned child. Fathima, today has grown up and works in Madurai.
“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 left, the diminutive 82 year-old was seen yelling into one of his phones, threatening the man (presumably a government official) at the other end with dire consequences if he did not abide by laws. His voice was hoarse, but the strength in it carried his message.