K.R Ramaswamy, popularly known as Traffic Ramaswamy is a household name in Chennai. Famous or infamous for his indomitable courage in taking on those in the annals of power, Ramaswamy is one name many don’t come across often. He is a social activist who is known for filing the highest number of PIL’s in the Madras High Court, most of which relate to regulation of traffic in and around Chennai, thus the nickname of “Traffic” Ramaswamy.
A former mill worker and personal assistant to former cabinet minister Mr. K. Venkataswamy Naidu, Ramaswamy started unofficially directing traffic at the city’s busy Parry’s Corner. The local police were so pleased with his efforts that they provided him with an official identity card. Not being content with just regulating the chaotic traffic of Chennai’s busy streets, Ramaswamy sought a more permanent solution for problems plaguing the roads of Chennai. That is when he knocked at the door of Madras High Court, and he has since never stopped doing it. Through a sleuth of PIL’s, he has obtained a ban on motorized fish carts prone to accidents, ban on unauthorised construction and eviction of hawkers from busy streets, decongestion of major bus routes, making helmet wearing compulsory while driving and stalling illegal collection of toll on national highways.
Acts of stealing of engines of Royal Enfield bullet motorcycles went rampant in Chennai around 2001. Gradually these engines were seen fitted to fish carts rolling on the roads of Chennai and were prone to accidents due to their contorted shape and excessive overloading. As these carts could not be categorized into any vehicle category under the Motor Vehicles Act, the administration was rendered helpless. But not Traffic Ramaswamy. He filed a PIL in the Madras High Court seeking a ban on these carts, which he eventually obtained. It was here that for the first time, and sadly not the last, that an attempt was made on his life. He survived the attack but lost the eyesight in his left eye.
The lawyers of the Madras High Court went on strike in 2008. They erected tents for a sit-in on the road in front of the court, blocking one way traffic for more than thirty five days. Traffic Ramaswamy came to rescue. He filed a PIL in the court, his contention was upheld and the lawyers were told to dismantle, many of them getting arrested in the process. This became the second instance when there was an attempt on his life by lawyers of the court protesting against its judgement, the same lawyers who berate about respect and infallibility of the law.
Not deterred by this, he took on some textile barons when he successfully exposed illegal construction of shops, factories and buildings in the city of Chennai. He also questioned state funding of a documentary based on Periyar E.V Ramaswamy, a social reformer (arguing the money could be used for development work). But the high point in his activism came when a PIL was filed by him questioning the use of word ‘amma’ (mother) in social schemes introduced by J Jayalalitha, the revered former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. He also tore a poster of the Chief Minister which was blocking a road sign, an act which irked many.
But this activism has come at a huge cost. His family has boycotted him and he lives in a small dingy room away from home seldom feeling the warmth and caress of a family. There have been many attempts on his life, by the fishermen in 2002 in which he lost eyesight in his left eye and the other by lawyers when he questioned their strike in the high court. But these threats do not deter him.
My aim is to make Chennai the most lovable city. I will continue my social work till I achieve this end
Men like Traffic Ramaswamy are an epitome of sacrifice and perseverance of the highest order. His is an exemplary life of courage, where fear and threats are no bar to social service.