An open fight between a bureaucrat and a politician in Kerala has put the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in a tight spot.
The battle between Kozhikode district collector Prashanth Nair and Congress MP MK Raghavan over implementation of projects under the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) has been raging both online and offline for the last one week.
It began with the MP seeking an apology from Prashanth for allegedly maligning his image in public for questioning the undue delay in clearing the bills of contractors who had undertaken the projects under the scheme.
The battle snowballed after the young IAS officer sarcastically responded to the MP’s demand by posting a map of Kunnamkulam, a tiny town in Thrissur district known for producing spurious items, in his personal Facebook page. The word 'map' or ‘maap’ in Malayalam means apology.
Viewing it as an insult to him as well as the people who have elected him, Raghavan has urged Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to take action against the collector. He has also lodged a complaint with the privileges committee of the Parliament.
Neither Pinarayi nor Revenue Minister E Chandrashekharan, under whom the head of the district functions, has responded to the demand even after Congress workers took the fight to the streets. However, Excise and Labour Minister TP Ramakrishnan said that the government had no intention to intervene in the row.
The government is apparently finding it difficult to take sides as both the persons who have locked horns are hugely popular. While the two-time MP enjoys the support of people cutting across political lines in his constituency (Kozhikode), the collector is a darling of common man, especially the new generation.
The new generation demonstrates their support to Prashanth, whom they call ‘collector bro’, mainly through social media. With over 2.5 lakh followers in Facebook alone, Prashanth is perhaps one of the most popular district collectors in the social media across the country today.
The politicians, especially the Congress leaders, have been accusing him of spending time on social media for the sake of publicity. Kozhikode district Congress chief KC Abu said Prashanth was not attending to the problems faced by the people because of being active on social media.
Prashanth is undeterred by the criticism. He told Firstpost that he has been trying to make social media serve the people better. He said that his attempt was to make the Facebook page of the district collector as an informal platform of the district administration for citizens to discuss, interact and post innovative ideas as well as air their grievances 24×7.
“The old way of reaching out to people through notices on the notice boards of village offices is no more the norm when there are technologies to connect with the people directly. We have to use this to make the administration more transparent, seamless, fast and accountable. When people are out there in social media, we need to be there,” says Prashanth.
The collector has been using the social media not merely to take the administration to people but also to draw ideas from them and ignite collective action for the betterment of all sections of people, especially the marginalized sections.
One such initiative is ‘Compassionate Kozhikode’, a platform he has established to launch projects that can generate and cultivate the spirit of compassion in individuals. It now hosts more than 20 initiatives offering innovative crowd sourced solutions to the problems of the people.
It all started after Prashant visited a mental hospital soon after he assumed charge of the district two years ago. He said he was taken aback by the condition in which the patients were lodged. The condition was pathetic. He was shocked by the lack of even essential materials there.
“The district administration had limitations in solving the problems. Hence, I decided to appeal to the goodness of the people through my Facebook page. I put out a list of 22 materials, including cots, bed pans, pillows, mugs, buckets and even nail cutters that it needed immediately. The response was tremendous. We got more than what we wanted in two weeks,” said Prashanth.
But what encouraged him most was the change in the attitude of people towards the mental care centre following the Facebook post. It inspired people from various walks of life and organisations to come forward to help the patients in whatever way they can.
“This opened my eyes towards the innate goodness among the people. I believed that they would express it when opportunities are made available. We have now offered a plethora of opportunities for people to show their compassion to fellow human beings with the help of social media” he added.
The initiatives include, 'Operation Sulaimani', which ropes in local restaurants and hotels to ensure none of the city's inhabitants go hungry, ‘Savarigiri’ that provides security and dignity to students travelling in public transport and ‘Yo Appooppa’ that seeks to bring comforts to elderly who are living alone.
Compassionate Kozhikode, which is called ‘Project CK,’ uses the power of electronic and social media such as Facebook for tapping the compassion of the people. Its website puts areas where voluntary services are required. The site will provide the details of the requirements of each institution. The donor can select from the list and post his readiness in the space provided in the website.
Project CK does not take money. He said that the project was designed in that way to avoid controversies and corruption. Those who wish to donate articles such as cot, wheel-chair, vehicles or refrigerator can directly provide them to the institutions or individuals concerned.
The project has caught international attention. While the last ITB-Berlin has chosen it as one of the 50 inspirational projects from around the world, Digital Empowerment Foundation and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation has selected it for the social media for empowerment (SM4E) award.
Prashanth said that his involvement in the social media was not for publicity or for any other personal gains as alleged by the politicians. He said that he was trying to make use of the opportunities it offers to serve the people better. He denied ignoring his duties as district collector.
“Putting a post on Facebook page takes just ten minutes. I do this mostly while I am travelling. Many think that I am always sitting in front of my device and chatting with people. This is not true. The people are communicating with me their problems for a solution. This is part of the collector’s job,” he added.
Prashanth said the delay in clearing payments to certain projects under Raghavan’s MPLADS was on account of complaints he received regarding the execution of the project. He said that he had informed the MP that he will clear the payment only after looking into the complaints.
“I had no intention to insult anybody by posting the map of Kunnamkulam. If this was my intention, I could have posted it on my official page. I had posted the map on my personal page, which is restricted to my family members and friends. Nobody has the right to poke their nose into my personal page,” he added.
Biju Govind, a senior journalist at Kozhikode, said the problem politicians may have with the collector is his swelling popularity. He said some of the local politicians may be considering it as threat to them. It is learnt that a couple of parties had tried to utilise this by approaching him with an offer to make him a candidate during the polls.
Biju, who regularly interacts with the collector, said that Prashanth is one of the few collectors who think out of the box, and that he has done a lot for the people of the district. Dr Suresh Kumar, who works with Prashanth on a palliative care project, finds him to be dedicated in whatever he does.
A senior police officer, who had associated with the collector in some projects, said the best thing he saw in Prashanth was that he was open to suggestions regardless of the person who made it. The officer, who did not want to be identified, said that this makes working with him comfortable.
Prashanth said that his main source of inspiration was his mother, who is a doctor by profession. She taught me not to fear anybody when you do the right things. “I believe I am on the right path,” he added.