Wednesday, 20 August, 2008

Vigilante By Profession...

The two pockets of his shirt seem to be bursting at its seams with sheafs of paper stuffed into them. He holds on to yet another bundle in his left hand. You would think he is a postman or a lawyer’s clerk, until you notice the policeman with a rifle, tailing him. Meet V.R.Ramaswamy alias “Traffic” Ramaswamy, Chennai’s one man army fighting official negligence and public apathy to the burning civic problems of our times. His days are spent fighting battles in courts, regulating traffic on roads and as a watchdog to new acts of omission and commission, committed day in and day out by our political masters. At the ripe old age of 74, Ramaswami does not fit our classical figure of a cartoon superhero or the vigilantes that our actor-superstars play on screen.

Born on April 1, 1934 Ramaswamy’s remarkable story makes you wonder that the day’s connotation could be apt for any other man. His fight against officialdom sounds almost foolish, to the cynics we all are. His public service began at the age of 15, when he got a tahsildar suspended for dereliction of duty. After studying one year for the old F.A degree, a brief stint with the establishment ensued, where he worked as PA to a minister in Rajaji’s cabinet. It gave him an understanding of how the government worked and subverted. Ramaswamy got married in 1964, but walked out of his house, when his father demanded dowry from the bride’s family. With the introduction of PILs, Ramaswamy found his niche in public service and till date has filed 50 PIL’s most of which he claims to have won.

He cites the demolition of a multi-storeyed building for grossly encroaching on Ranganathan Street in T.Nagar in 2006 as his biggest achievement. He got the one-way around high court were 25 lives were lost, made into a two-way. For raising his voice and fighting corruption, he has been attacked five times and is today protected by the courts. Ramaswamy even ruffled M.Karunanidhi’s feathers by photographing the CM’s motorcade going the wrong way on Broadway, and getting it published in newspapers. The police official who took the route was transferred and Traffic Ramaswamy made a new enemy in the most powerful man in Tamil Nadu. After receiving death threats and warnings of harm to his near ones, he left his family and has started living alone.

For his efforts, Ramaswamy has won recognition, though it can be argued that those are not commensurate with his achievements. The Bharat Sevak Samaj honoured him with a Best Traffic Regulator Award. If you see an old man regulating traffic in the North Beach area don’t be surprised – Ramswamy has been given the honorary position by the Asst Commissioner of North Beach. His foresight to start a Home Guard during the 1971 Indo-Pak war adds a whole new dimension to this man – that of a patriot. The TN govt eventually took over the organization and today is headed by the State DGP.

So what keeps him going strong and healthy at 74, when younger men in their twenties droop in the heat? Pat comes the reply - water, a few cups of tea, biscuits and 4 plantains until a few years back! On the advice of doctors, he has added two idlis to his diet to sustain his life energy. His public life begins at 7 in the morning and he knows no rest till 10 at night. On being a lone-ranger, he says he doesn’t mind the tag but adds that he gets support from people in all walks of life. The finance for his efforts comes from them, he adds. On being made fun of, for his work and his attire, he says he doesn’t mind the barbs. “I have a conscience. I will follow it. I walk with the wads of paper in my two pockets, so that people can recognize me, wherever I go.”

And mass recognition is not far away for him. Nepali, a recent movie had mention of him. Another upcoming film, Ayudham Seyvom, will have a lookalike of “Traffic” Ramaswamy. An invitation to join politics, lies open to him, through Vijayakant’s Dravida Kazhakam. But Ramaswamy says he will lose his identity in public service by joining a political party. No doubt he has a king-sized ego. You might even suspect him to be a megalomaniac. But there is no doubting his commitment to making our flawed Indian system work - he left us young people, the journalists of tomorrow, who interviewed him with the intention of getting a story, an iota of awareness for our legal system by explaining how simple filing a PIL is and to question a traffic cop who asks you for a fine, instead of conveniently slipping him the 100 rupee note.

P.S - A feature written for course work. Amazing guy. I felt ashamed of my youth and the hollow idealism in me, as this old man goaded us to fight.