Don’t call me madam. Whether it is the neighbour’s kid, the police officer or corporation official, I like everyone to call me Kamakshi Paati (grandmother in Tamil) because, I think we are all one big family.
I, Kamakshi Subramaniyan, am 94 years old and have filed my nomination as an independent candidate for the post of ward councillor in the upcoming urban local body polls. I will be contesting from ward 174 (Besant Nagar and Adyar area) and I'm probably the oldest person to contest in the elections.
I have been an active resident of Besant Nagar since the 1980s, I've always been keen about civic issues.
One day, I thought to myself, Instead of cribbing, why don't I do the work myself? If I get elected, I will get the power to stop corruption. And even if I don’t get elected, I will continue the social work.
I want to make youngsters ask one question to themselves : ‘Why am I just talking and not doing anything? Why am I not entering politics, where I can actually serve the society and make this a better and cleaner place?"
You Don't Need To Be Jobless To Care for Your Streets
My husband and I lived in New Delhi for 30 years. He worked at the secretariat and we stayed inside the Rashtrapati Bhavan premises (president’s secretariat). So I am quite familiar with how bureaucracy works.
Many people think that I have a lot of free time and I am bored and that’s why I am doing all this work. But actually, you don’t need to be jobless to care for your streets.
When you are driving and you see a cracked road, just make note of it. You can make a quick call to the respective assistant engineer and they will look into the matter immediately. Many ridicule me, asking, 'why I am concerned about Venkatnayarayana road in Mylapore, when I live in Besant Nagar?' My response to them is that I am a citizen of India and I pay my taxes. So even if something goes wrong in Delhi, I have the right to question it.
My Road, My Park
My neighbours call me the 'watchdog of Besant Nagar' and I hold on to that tag with pride.
I am the co-founder of SPARK, a civic forum to tackle issues in the area.
One of my first works, when I was 87-year-old, in March 2013, was the restoration of the Schmidt Memorial*, the face of Besant Nagar. I made a few calls and soon a team of civil engineers from Indian Institute of Technology Madras visited the location and restored the memorial.
(*Note: The Karl Schmidt Memorial is an architectural landmark commemorating a European sailor who drowned in 1930 trying to save the life of a girl. It is located at Elliot's Beach in Chennai.)
In 1999, I fought a battle for eight years. There was no compound wall outside Olcott Memorial and so I would just sit near my door and shoo away anyone who came to cut trees. Six months later, after several calls, a compound wall was built. But there was a large space along the right side of Besant Nagar Fourth Avenue filled with weeds and poisonous reptiles.
I called the corporation officials and told them to convert this wasteland into a park. They objected to it saying it didn’t fall on the main road. But how does that matter?
During events like the Vanmahotsav festival, the corporation workers would drop saplings along the street. So I stopped them and told them to bring someone to clear the area and then plant it so that at least it will flourish to become a beautiful garden. I told Rajesh Lakhani, then corporation commissioner, that if he needed to show in his records that those saplings were planted, then he can go ahead and plant them in his own backyard.
From 1999 to 2007, I called the civic body every day to convince them to plant saplings.
After several arguments and a long wait, he called me and told me, 'Here you go. This is our gift to you for turning 80.’
I closely monitored even the work on Besant Nagar Fourth Avenue every day. It has been 12 years and water does not stagnate and the road still looks new.
Once a senior corporation official asked, ‘Paati, you always refer to all this as 'my park' and 'my road', but you must understand it is corporation’s.’ I replied, ‘They are my children, I gave birth to them and I brought them up.’
My Age Is My Biggest Advantage
Since I have been involved with the corporation, I am very familiar with the officials and the procedures. Many corporation officials have told me that they hate seeing my calls. But this is the only way you can get work done.
And I feel my age works to my advantage, because people respect me. And I want to make use of that for people’s welfare.
If I have power, then I will have clear understanding of how many funds are allotted and how they can be utilised.
Braving the Pandemic and Masking Up
I have avoided going out during these two years of COVID-19. On 16 February, I went for my first outdoor campaign. I try to mask up and stay safe as much as possible. In fact, for these elections people should vote based on how much that person will work to fix their roads, streetlights, garbage, and build parks and public spaces.
A person should be elected based on goodwill she has earned over the years through her work.
To the people of Tamil Nadu, your vote counts. It can topple governments. It is not your right but your duty. Every citizen should be aware and involved.
(As told to Smitha TK, Principal Correspondent, The Quint.)