Prashanth Nair is not your regular kind of district collector. He commands more than one lakh followers on Facebook, addresses each of his young male audience as ‘bro’ and leads innovative crowd-funded campaigns through social media.
Prashanth, who heads the Kozhikode district administration in Kerala, has been criticised by politicians for keeping an active virtual profile, but he has no qualms about it. In a rapidly changing India where smartphones and Internet users multiply by the day, Prashant represents a new breed of administrators who wants to capitalise on the situation to reach out to more people.
“The people are out there in social media, so we need to be there. It’s as simple as that. Pasting notices on the notice boards of the village office is no longer the way to reach out to the public. Social media as a platform makes administration more transparent, seamless, fast, publicly accountable, and ‘informal’,” says Prashanth, whose earlier posting was as the private secretary to the state home minister. Incidentally, Kozhikode has had its share of collectors who think out of the box, among them Amitabh Kant who is credited with changing the face of the city before initiating the God’s Own Country campaign that put Kerala on top of the global tourist map.
A Facebook page called ‘Collector Kozhikode’, that Prashanth personally handles, has amassed 1,07,000 followers at last count and is replete with photographs of popular and quirky campaigns. It is also flooded with people voicing complaints in their residential areas and at many times, their appreciation for Prashanth’s work. But unlike other pages, no question here goes unanswered.
One campaign, headed by Prashanth, that has really taken off in the district is called ‘Operation Sulaimani’. Named after the iconic spiced tea of the region, Operation Sulaimani is a decentralised participatory project to address hunger in urban areas .
“Beneficiaries of the project are people who are in the city and cannot afford to buy a meal for whatever reason. This can be a destitute person without any money, a student who lost her lunch box or a traveller who finds that he does not have enough money in his wallet to buy a decent meal. Meal coupons distributed by the project are obliged by a large number of restaurants in the city and the person is treated as any other guest. Multiple outlets operated by student volunteers, shops and government offices offer coupons to any needy person on request. Restaurants offering meals against production of Sulaimani Coupons get the money reimbursed from an account maintained by the implementing agency,” says Prashanth in an e-mailed response.
At a time when bureaucrats clash frequently with politicians over control of administration, Prashanth’s stint in Kozhikode is not devoid of controversies. A few months ago, the district chief of the ruling Congress complained that the IAS officer was spending far too much time on social media and does not have time to answer his phone calls. But Prashanth says such controversies prove there is a requirement for e-literacy.
“Putting a post on Facebook takes just five minutes. Just because my profile picture keeps smiling at you 24×7, doesn’t mean that I’m sitting there throughout. Secondly, I’m not chatting with my girlfriends. The citizens are communicating with me and getting their problems sorted out through this medium. And finally, Facebook and Twitter are additional media for citizen interface,” says Prashanth, making sure to add that local politicians are reasonable and good at heart.
Dr Suresh Kumar, founder of Institute of Palliative Medicine and who works with Prashanth on several initiatives, finds him dedicated and open to suggestions. “The thing is no one is forcing him to initiate some of these programmes, but he is taking out time to contribute to a good social commitment,” he said.
Kerala may be endowed with high human development indicators and laudable literacy initiatives, but it is sorely lacking in infrastructure building and a push for jobs. A recent ‘Ease of doing business’ survey by the World Bank showed Kerala languishing in the 18th position. Prashanth believes the public must be active stakeholders in the development process. “The public needs to be taken into confidence and strong and credible leadership should own up these initiatives. The public is often faced with a trust deficit issue when it comes to trusting new initiatives. This is where smart and credible social selling becomes relevant,” he said.
Asked what his future aspirations are, Prashanth says Kozhikode is his ‘karmabhoomi’ (place of work). “I wish to see a compassionate population in my district, people who care for each other. Our focus should shift from structures and concrete to people,” he said.