How 89-year young Kamakshi Paati is inspiring change in Chennai

Her enthusiasm for meeting people is equalled only by her indignation at the pathetic state of the infrastructure all over the city – the roads that get relaid without being milled, the storm water drains that are overflowing because someone let their sewage water into it, the bio-toilet that everyone pees around, but no one goes inside to their job, the lovely Besant nagar beach where everyone loves to stomp around but no one stops to give a thought to the teeming marine life in the sand… she can go on and on.. But no, she is not a pessimist, in fact, anything but.

She is a die-hard optimist, who believes that things must and will get better, but only IF, and WHEN, we, the citizens of this lovely city we call home, wake up and demand our rightful due..

Meet Kamakshi Subramaniyan, 89 years, and raring to go!

She is a familiar face in the Besant Nagar area, having played a big role in the restoration of the Schmidt memorial on Elliots Beach.(That the memorial is once again slipping into poor condition, causes her much pain). She rallies groups of citizens to take charge of their local problems, and is fearless in voicing her criticism of poor civic initiatives. For example, she says the much vaunted new footpaths in Besant Nagar are not at all senior citizen friendly, as they are too high to climb on, there are no ramps for easy access, and most of the space is completely taken over by encroachments!

She says she was always a fighter, and her husband, knowing that, always supported her quietly and sportingly. The first fights were, after she moved into Besant Nagar after a long innings in Delhi, when she saw sandalwood and other trees being logged and stolen from the Olcott School campus, right across the road from her house. She would frantically call the school and the Corporation to alert them that their trees were being illegally cut and transported away. Her persistent efforts resulted in the school putting up a fence to protect the hundreds of trees on their premises.

The one episode that brought her a lot of renown in Chennai, was when she fought for eight years, to bring a garden to the street on which she lives, in Besant Nagar, on 4th avenue. The garden was inaugurated on her 80th birthday!

All this energy had to be part of something constructive. In 2012, Kamakshi Paati, as she is fondly known, and Dr T D Babu, started a civic initiative called SPARK based out of Sastri Nagar in Adyar. SPARK was born out of a realisation that many people, even if they wanted to do something about civic issues, did not know where to begin. So its founders, believing that joining hands with the government can bring far more good change than confrontation, help citizens connect to the local authorities — be it the corporator, utility provider or even the Mayor of the city himself!

Starting with a handful of members, Spark has now grown to a partnership of over 30 residential associations. People call from far and wide (Porur, Tambaram, etc), hoping to get a solution to their civic problems. Contact Spark at +91 9940061810 and +91 9884114721

It was under the umbrella of SPARK, that Kamakshi Paati and Dr Babu, along with Mr Satyamurthy of Reach Foundation, first mooted the idea of the renovation of Schmidt memorial, a memorial on Besant Nagar beach for a Danish soldier, who drowned off the beach while trying to save a young girl. Upon SPARK’s request, IIT Madras came up with a comprehensive renovation proposal which included inputs from the civil engineering and archeology departments, which was then funded to the tune of Rs 34 lakhs by the Chennai Corporation. It was re-opened with fanfare by the Commissioner, and the Danish Ambassador paid a visit soon. After all this effort, it pains Kamakshi Paati to see that the lovely ivory coloured monument is once again going to seed, for want of proper maintenance!

More recently, Kamakshi Paati led a signature campaign to relocate the bio-toilets that were placed by the Chennai Corporation, right in the path of walkers on Besant Nagar beach road. She argued that not only were they totally in an inappropriate place, they were also designed in such a way that most ladies would hesitate to use them. After collective protests, the toilets were moved away closer to the Kuppam on the far end of the beach.

She looks out of her window at the youngsters riding their bikes at top speed down 4th Avenue and rues that most of them are not wearing helmets, or that they litter so casually, even though there is a dustbin just yards away, and they can see that the street is otherwise clean!

She also laments the fact that enough people don’t come out to check on the quality of roads being laid, or drainage work being done, even if it is right outside their door! For instance, when she found out that storm water drains were being laid in Besant Nagar (which does not need them, because the soil is totally sandy!), she called up the Mayor (who, she says, has been a great ally in her work and never fails to take her calls) and requested him to have the work stopped. And it was!

Kamakshi Paati uses this anecdote to drive home the point, that we always get the administration we deserve. If we believe that we deserve better civic amenities, we must demand them. People must make themselves aware of who their elected representatives are – councillors, MLAs, MPs. Find out what are the promised projects in their area, and how much of the money that has been allocated for the these projects, has actually reached them.

Citizens must also try to befriend their local officials so that they can turn to them in a crisis, she says. On her part, whenever a senior civic official is newly posted to Zone 13 (under which Besant Nagar falls), she calls upon him/her, and offers her full support and blessings for their work.

It is perhaps this that has her charged up for her next mission – finding responsive citizens to stand for the Corporator elections. “Only when we arise, awake and take charge, will we find ways to make this city and our society free of corruption again!’ says this feisty, 89-year-young, civic activist. May her tribe increase!

About Meenakshi Ramesh 13 Articles
Meenakshi Ramesh is Involved in civic initiatives in Chennai and she anchors the Chennai edition of Citizen Matters. She has also worked with Pratham. She can be reached at meenakshi@oorvani.in

3 Comments

  1. Very great lady. We all admire her. She is a role model for all of us young and old. May she lead a long and healthy life.

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