CHENNAI: Age is just a number for 94-year-old Kamakshi Subramaniyan, who filed her nomination as an independent candidate for the post of ward councillor in the upcoming urban local body polls. She will be contesting from ward 174 (Besant Nagar and Adyar area) and is probably the oldest to ever contest for this post.
Old she may be, but she is as energetic as they come. Feisty and fearless, Kamakshi paati, as she is fondly called in the area, has been a civic activist ever since she moved to Besant Nagar in the 1980s. Apart from fighting against civic woes, she also played a crucial part in restoring the historical Karl Schmidt Memorial at Elliot’s beach.
“My husband and I lived in New Delhi for 30 years. He was the deputy secretary at the Secretariat and we stayed inside the Rashtrapati Bhavan premises (President’s Secretariat). The best part of my day used to be listening to my husband’s workplace stories. In three decades, I started to understand how bureaucracy works,” said the nonagenarian.
She is the co-founder of SPARK, a civic forum to tackle issues in the area. SPARK began with the scientific restoration of the Schmidt memorial. Residents and civic authorities know Kamakshi as a person who conducts secret ‘inspections’ whenever a project is undertaken in the area. She says she knows where there is scope to loot.
“For example, while laying the road, the thickness of tar will be more than prescribed limits. Also, they fill the whole road and leave no space on sides for water percolation because the more they fill, the more the money. I closely monitored the work on Besant Nagar Fourth Avenue every day. It has been 12 years and even during the tsunami, water did not stagnate. The road still looks new,” she explained.
The councillor post is an unpaid job and akin to that of an activist, but with some ability to exercise control over institutions. The 94-year-old has been waiting to file her nominations for 10 years now, since no elections were held in between. Her priority would be to consult with the public before going ahead with any project, she says. Also, it needs to be an inclusive ward with the same kind of priority given to senior citizens and persons with disability.
Activists and authorities first started recognising her when she fought an eight-year battle for Olcott Memorial. Noticing that the memorial’s green park was vanishing as trees and branches were cut daily due to lack of a compound wall, she sat by her window and shooed away anyone who came to cut trees. She also made calls to officials everyday and finally, a wall came up.
And when even that didn’t deter anti-socials from making the place adjacent to the wall their den, she called up officials everyday to convince them to plant saplings in the space to deter them. “From 1999 to 2007, I called the civic body every day to convince them to plant saplings in the space adjacent to the wall. The civic body still remembers me for that,” she smiles.
Her efforts for Schmidt Memorial was similar — continuous calls to different departments and running from pillar to post every day. “I even had to ask the government for food and accommodation for the masons. I had stones pelted on my window when I complained against ‘top’ officials. Being a councillor might help in issues like this. We can also instil a sense of social responsibility by involving the public in decision-making. Whether I win or lose, my work will continue,” said Kamakshi.