'After people died when banners fell on them, I decided to file a case to make it a law to prevent people from doing this.'
'Till today, I have filed 150 cases against this menace.'
'Traffic' Ramaswamy has been single-handedly taking on various injustices in society though court battles.
Though much of India found out about his fight to remove illegal hoardings in Tamil Nadu only after the tragic death of 23-year-old Subhashri last week, whose scooter was knocked down when an AIADMK hoarding fell on her and she was run over by a truck, he has been fighting against this menace for more than a decade.
"I hold the officials responsible for implementing the law, more than the political parties who erect the illegal banners. The officials should be punished first," 85-year-old Ramaswamy, below, tells Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier.
What made you take up the issue of illegal hoardings in the state? You were once beaten up by members of a political party when you took down banners erected illegally by them.
In 2007, the then chief secretary of Tamil Nadu released a GO (governmental order) that said that anybody could erect a banner three days before a function and two days after the function.
This is totally wrong as per the Constitution. So, I challenged the GO and the order was quashed by Justice P K Mishra.
After that, the power to take the decision was given to the collector. Unfortunately, various collectors did not take any stance on this issue. They allowed everybody to illegally erect banners everywhere.
After four or five people died when some banners fell on them, I decided to file a case again to make it a law to prevent people from doing this.
Till today, I have filed 150 cases against this menace. All these cases are pending in court.
In January 2019, I filed a contempt of court plea against the chief secretary over non-compliance of the court order.
It was reported that because of banners falling on people, more than 30 people have died so far.
Yes, 33 people died. Subhashri is the 34th person.
Now, the judiciary has come forward and asked the government to take su motu action against those responsible for erecting illegal banners.
Not only political parties, fans of film stars also erect huge hoardings at many places in the city...
Temples also erect hoardings. In the name of god, people erect banners and steal electricity from electric poles. I have pulled down such banners also at many places.
The court has now put the responsibility on the police officials who are supposed to give a no objection certificate to erect banners.
Without an NOC from the police, nobody can erect a banner and the city corporation also cannot collect money.
There is a law that says no banner should be erected within 100 metres of a junction. They have to take permission from the building before erecting a banner on the compound walls. But this is not followed till today.
They put up banners across the road and that has resulted in the death of 34 people.
Is it not hazardous for people even if the banners are put up on compound walls?
Yes. Now, on my petition, the court has come forward and ordered that all banners should be banned -- which means nobody can erect banners anywhere.
With the ban, no police official can give any NOC and the corporation cannot collect any money.
Erecting banners is illegal now.
Does that mean the police can pull the banners down?
Yes. Till now, I have been pulling down the banners. Now, I can call the police and ask them to pull them down.
As it is illegal, anybody who erects a banner can be arrested. There is a punishment of three years of imprisonment or Rs 10,000 as fine, or both.
The court said there was zero respect for lives in this country. Do you feel that way?
Yes, the observation was made on my petition. The court asked, how many more litres of blood do you need to paint the roads with?
The court also asked whether there was a government in Tamil Nadu.
The court observed that it was the duty of the government to take care of the lives of citizens and if they failed to do their duty, they would be punished.
After the court was adjourned, I gave a memorandum under IPC 302 to take action against the police of the areas, the corporation officials and the person who had erected the banner which was an AIADMK man.
Apart from that, I said they should be punished for negligence of duty under Section 166 A of the IPC. The punishment is imprisonment of one year or Rs 5,000 as fine, or both.
This was never done before, but I hope they will be given the right punishment.
On my contempt plea, the Madras high court ordered an ex gratia of Rs 5 lakh to be given to Subhashri's family, and asked the government to recover the money from the salaries of the officers.
The court also ordered disciplinary action against the police officers and corporation officials who were responsible for the death of the young girl.
Who is the real culprit? The officials who allow this to happen, or the people who erect such banners?
I hold the officials responsible for implementing the law, more than the political parties who erect the illegal banners. The officials should be punished first.
Some actors have now promised that they would not allow their fans to erect banners in future. I hope it continues.
Do you feel people have lost faith in the government?
Yes, I feel people have lost faith in the government.
I have given another representation that the Election Commission should de-recognise parties that erect illegal banners.
If the political parties are disqualified for such violations, it will act as a deterrent. Political parties that disobey the law shouldn't exist.
I hope hereafter, all political parties will start obeying the law.
Do you feel the huge public outcry after this young woman's death will end this banner culture?
I would say this has continued because of public apathy. Nobody is bothered about this.
Only this young man of 85 has been fighting for the last 12 years.
Do you think I am fighting for myself? No, I am doing this for the public.
I want the public to come forward and question the government whenever they do something wrong.
What gives you the energy to fight such injustices?
I am following the footsteps of Rajaji (Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, freedom-fighter and India's last governor general). I was with Rajaji from 1952-1954 as one of the PAs in his government.
He told me once, 'Sampath' -- that was my name -- 'you believe in yourself and work as per your conscience.'
'Even if 90 out of 100 people criticise you, there will be 10 to support you. You don't need power to make a change, you can do that as an ordinary citizen.'
From then on, I am the king who has taken it as his duty to save public lives as an ordinary citizen of India.
My aim in life is to fight against all injustices.
Do you like the name 'Traffic' Ramaswamy?
I like it as my motto in life is the safety of people and to preserve their fundamental rights.
I hope to continue my fight till my last breath, till I am 120.