I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man (woman) you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you are contemplating is going to be of any use to him (her). Will he (she) gain anything by it? Will it restore him (her) to a control over his (her) own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj (freedom) for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melt away."
—Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, 1948
Gandhi’s talisman, on a display board in Malayalam, is the first thing one notices upon entering the collector’s office in Kerala’s Kozhikode district. And the person who follows Gandhi’s talisman word for word is district collector N. Prasanth.
Prasanth conducts the entire administration of the district—with a population of about 3.3 million people—through civil society participation and social media. He calls the movement “Compassionate Kozhikode", and believes that the district can be run on compassion.
“In the light of Gandhi’s talisman, it becomes our duty to look at the weakest in the society, and who could that be: the inmates in mental asylums; people living in old-age homes who have been discarded by their own children; residents of children’s homes and so on. We have to reprioritize our responsibilities and make our administration really compassionate," he says.
To make compassion work, the district collector involves citizens and encourages them to come forward to solve problems of fellow citizens. In the last year, he has involved more than 1,000 volunteers to meet administrative challenges of the district. There are 15 projects that Prasanth has launched so far, and all of them are managed, maintained and sustained by volunteers.
For example, Operation Sulaimani is an initiative that provides food with dignity. Prasanth explains, “Sulaimani, originally, is a rare blend of tea, lime and warmth. The motive is to ensure no one in Kozhikode is denied food on account of an empty or even a lost wallet. You have the right to food without answering a series of questions while standing in a queue. There are more than 25 Sulaimani distribution centres in 14 zones of Kozhikode district that one can access in need. The coupons from here can be exchanged for a good meal at more than 100 restaurants in the district. The initiative is run in partnership with hotel and restaurant associations, and public support. Many people who enjoy the taste of Kozhikode often remember to donate towards the project as well."
Asked about the modus operandi, Prasanth says, “We are taught, in our administrative service training at Mussoorie, that you have to be responsive, engaging, interactive, participative, citizen-centric, consultative and so on. But, most of the time, when we go back to the ground, we follow the same administrative practices, without any citizen engagement, from pre-Independence time. In Kozhikode, we are only following what I was taught and converting theory into practice."
Prasanth’s methodology is to diagnose prevailing problems in the district, organize public involvement and civil society groups, get the diagnosis listed on various public domains like social media platforms, and encourage people to volunteer and contribute with solutions. Today, the Facebook page of “Collector Kozhikode" has garnered over 189,064 likes; and more than 8,184 people are talking about the page at any point of time. This means that more than 8,000 people are constantly talking or responding or engaging themselves on the official Facebook page of the district collector. The highly interactive and responsive Facebook page of the collector has been reviewed by more than 6,550 people with an average rating of 4.8 out of 5.
Prasanth is an ardent believer in social media. He says he believes that everyone is out there on social media. He says with immense confidence, “In this new age, we cannot go into a village and put a message on the notice board, expecting the public to read it and respond. We also cannot go to a crowded marketplace and start beating drums to pull in the crowd; nobody will listen. But people are out there on social media. And so we have been using social media for our diagnosis and have been receiving overwhelming response."
Any doubts I had were laid to rest after a pit stop in Kozhikode en route to Kochi. I asked Prasanth if he could mobilize 100-plus local and grass-roots NGOs with whom I could hold a two-hour session on digital empowerment and social media for the development sector. He agreed, though he had less than a week’s time to mobilize such a crowd. He deputed a volunteer for all coordination and when I reached, there were about 110 people, representing various NGOs, waiting for the session to begin; and, at least 40 of them had signed up for going online with a dedicated website for their NGO.
When I asked Prasanth how “Compassionate Kozhikode" could be sustained and replicated if he were to leave, he gave a very simple answer: “We do not want Compassionate Kozhikode to be replicated or sustained. However, we want ‘compassion’ to be ingrained in administrative tools. It must be ignited among the people to be sustained and replicated in all communities. The more compassion we have, the less administration we will have to do."
Disclaimer: Compassionate Kozhikode is a winner of Social Media for Empowerment Award given by Digital Empowerment Foundation, which is Mint’s strategic partner.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is co-author of NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. Tweet him @osamamanzar