Traffic Ramaswami, courtesy The Hindu

These are harvest times for the grim reaper and scarcely a day goes by without someone whom you loved, admired, or cherished passing on. One among these is ‘Traffic’ KR Ramaswamy. While I did not know him well enough to love him, I admired the man, and his guts remain something to be cherished.

Several years ago, on a warm afternoon, I was waiting to meet the Chief Justice of the High Court of Madras at his chamber. My escort and I were making polite conversation when who should walk in but ‘Traffic’ Ramaswamy. He was accompanied by a security guard. Having come in, Ramaswamy peered around for a chair. I gave him mine. I then turned to my companion only to find that he had frozen from head to foot.

“Is that not Traffic Ramaswamy?” I asked.

“Yes. He is,” came the icy reply. “And now he will hog the Chief’s time.”

“Can you introduce me?” I asked.

“No. Nothing good comes of knowing him.”

And that was that. We met the CJ before ‘Traffic’ could, and left. Our paths did not cross after this. But during the car ride back home I could not help reflecting on how the establishment detested Ramaswamy. He was such a thorn in their ample flesh.

It was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru I think that gave Manohar Aich, the bodybuilder, the title of India’s pocket-sized Hercules. Ramaswamy though possessor of no impressive physique, was diminutive and as for the tasks he took on, they were certainly worthy of a Hercules. Cleaning the Augean Stables was one of the Roman hero’s labours but that was nothing compared to what Ramaswamy strove to set right. He was an activist in every sense of the word.

A former mill worker, Ramaswamy shot to fame in the 1990s when he offered to help the police manage traffic near the High Court area. There were so pleased that they even gave him a volunteer card armed with which he got on with the task. And that is how he acquired the Traffic prefix. But Ramaswamy soon came to realise that the police were as much part of the problems that the area faced. Unregulated parking and hawking on the footpaths were both root causes and these flourished with the tacit blessing of the authorities. They therefore hated it when Ramaswamy began questioning their complicity.

This was just the beginning. Ramaswamy then went on to attack bigger problems. He waged a relentless war against fish carts – the semi-motorised vehicles that were used to transport almost everything other than fish, ranging from huge metal rods and poles to water pots. Most of these were unlicensed and there was no regulation on them. They were frequent causes of fatal/near fatal accidents owing to overloading and over speeding and Ramaswamy was determined to bring them to heel. He filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in court and eventually managed to get an order passed banning all unregistered fish carts. This made him a hero in the eyes of the public. Even the administration rather grudgingly acknowledged his work in curbing this menace.

But what they found unforgivable was his deciding to rid the city of flex banners, posters and cut outs. These had become regular features of Tamil Nadu politics, especially with the advent of J Jayalalithaa, who it would appear rejoiced in these public forms of adulation wherever she went, even if it was as routine as a car ride from home to office and back. The DMK, when it was in power was loath to pass up on a good publicity technique and copied all of this. As a consequence, motorists and pedestrians were put to great risk as they went down roads through which a chief ministerial cavalcade was to pass. There were fatal accidents as well. But all of this did not make the administration turn a hair.

Ramaswamy threw himself wholeheartedly into the fight. His methods were simple, and most dramatic. Minutes before the VIP convoy would pass he manifested himself and began tearing down posters and hoardings. He was sometimes whisked away by the police and at other times attacked by party cadre but he was not deterred. Eventually, it was the High Court that once again stepped in with regulations for the erecting of hoardings and banners. Not that these were followed. But there was at least a law in place. And with the passing of the great Dravidian stars, the need for adulatory publicity material has also diminished.

While we as public rejoiced in the doings of Ramaswamy and secretly wished we had his courage, the pain of being a reformer was all his. He was beaten up several times and in one lethal attack was left with permanently impaired vision in one eye. His family moved away for its own safety and he lived alone. Eventually even the courts tired of him, admonishing him for wasting their time on frivolous PILs. Not that he was daunted. And all of his actions did get him a direct line of access to successive Chief Justices. The courts ensured his protection as well.

You could not agree with all of Ramaswamy’s views. For instance, his solution for the hawking issue was an outright ban. This would never work if we were to consider the livelihood of the hawkers. And the courts found a way once again by getting the Corporation to build exclusive structures dedicated to hawkers, thereby clearing the footpaths. But these were badly designed and many allottees preferred to rent them out and return to the footpaths. And in places where they did not, new hawkers stepped in. The administration never followed up on the court’s ruling that the hawkers had to be limited to those already in operation and new entrants had to be deterred. It all made you realise that Ramaswamy was not wrong.

That Hercules was tiring of his labours was quite evident in the last couple of years. He could still be seen moving around, unmistakable with this thick thatch of grey hair, his bright red namam drawn vertically from brow to hairline, his eyes peering through pebble glasses, and his trademark slack shirt and trousers. But he had quietened down. We can only hope his last days were peaceful.

But he will not be forgotten. He showed us that in order to deal with politicos and administrators you needed to be bull-headed, tenacious and above all, not hesitate to get your hands dirty. The common man has lost a friend and crusader. Perhaps the administration is rejoicing.