In February, N Prasanth took charge as Kozhikode’s new collector. Local newspapers gave an overview of his first day at work. As is wont, the staff had gathered outside to receive him. The 35-year-old IAS officer (2007 batch) walked in wearing casual denims, checked shirt and sunglasses. The glasses stayed as he greeted the staff, walked to his chamber, shook hands with his chuffed parents, attended work and met the press.
Nothing tickles the archetypal Malayali as much as the chance to taunt; and perceived arrogance is a collective pet peeve. Ahankaram (arrogance) may be the polished term, but real joy is in the earthy and colloquial jaada , a potent idea that sums anyone up in a single stroke. Wear sunglasses at public functions, and jaada is on its way.
Just when jaada was itching to pop up, the collector said, “Excuse the glasses, I have pink eye.” Quizzical brows instantly straightened. That deft and astute awareness of his milieu has come handy in Prasanth’s first posting as collector, particularly when handling the entourage of opinionated, immensely aware followers on his official Facebook page. In seven months, Collector, Kozhikode, has become one of the most popular district administration pages on FB. With 1,38,613 followers at last count, what sets the page apart is the collector’s proactive presence. Welfare schemes and other announcements and initiatives appear here, with detailed notes from the top man himself. He responds to queries. Though a team handles the backend work, his is the final word. “I do it personally,” he says on the phone from Kozhikode.
Among the last administrations in the State to have an FB presence, Kozhikode made up for lost time quickly. The collector keeps the space casual yet efficient. “The more we responded to people, the more popular it became. Kozhikode is not your conventional IT destination, but the exposure to social media is immense,” he says.
Prasanth doesn’t speak from a pulpit. A movie buff, his posts are sprinkled with film dialogues and repartee. When impish followers go overboard, his gentle “ Nadesha … kollanda ” (Nadesha, don’t kill — a dialogue from Ravanaprabhu ) reins them in smoothly. The Kozhikode slang too slips in to build bonhomie. He is lavish with his ‘ bhais ’, and followers get back with ‘bro’, ‘rockstar’ and ‘new-gen collector’. “It is a level playing ground. The apt language for social media is an informal one; humour helps and smilies work. We do not delete any comments, except if they are communally sensitive,” says Prasanth.
His staff gamely manages the flood of opinions online. Even a playful post stating there won’t be any messages that day are liked by 8,000 and shared over 200 times. Despite the traffic, what is striking is the relative absence of vitriol. They poke fun at him, but in good humour. In fact, the page is now a site of tug-of-war. Followers from other districts are making an open pitch for him. Someone from Idukki lures him with the promise of kappa-meen (tapioca and fish), another doesn’t mind using black magic if that can get him Prasanth as Kannur’s collector, a third wonders if he can clone Prasanth 13 times for distribution across Kerala. The collector has inspired at least three fan pages and a cover picture has him flying over Kozhikode beach in Superman costume. “It is embarrassing,” he chuckles.
What has apparently worked with the people is the channel of communication he has opened. He has brought down walls, and the page serves as a feedback forum. When he wanted an app to check speeding buses, models flew in from techies within minutes. However, it’s his social initiatives that have won people over.
A flagship is ‘Operation Suleimani’, aimed at making the city hunger-free. Centres distribute food coupons, which can be exchanged for a free meal at the over 100 restaurants that are part of the initiative. “We didn’t want names that smack of typical government projects,” says Prasanth. ‘Suleimani’, a straightforward brew of tea, lemon and spices — vintage Kozhikode stuff, fit the bill. Film Ustad Hotel had already popularised it as a concoction of warmth, love and hospitality. It didn’t take long for the crowd-funded, volunteer-driven Operation Suleimani to click. “The project has stabilised and we are extending it beyond the city. A Middle East-based businessman offered us ₹1.25 crore. We politely declined. We don’t require that kind of money. It is sustained by small amounts.”
In fact, money is not the concern in the projects under Compassionate Kozhikode; rather, participation is. On FB, there are calls for volunteers for the pain and palliative centre, welfare homes and hospitals. The administration encourages donation of material. A Rubik’s cube for the children’s home, a water purifier for the men’s home — requirements are meticulously uploaded on the Compassionate Kozhikode website. “Money is not the issue. It is about giving your time. What you get by visiting these places, money transfer can never get you,” says Prasanth.
This appeals to Hema Idhayan, a Bengaluru resident hailing from Kozhikode. She follows the collector’s initiatives on FB. “It says a lot when you are not taking money from people,” she says. The response from the people has energised her and she is contemplating going back. “Even if the collector goes, I am sure the initiatives will stay.” What appeals to another follower, a retired professor, is the secular space the page has become. She recalls how the page went into a tizzy when a local politician picked on the collector’s fetish for social media. To Prasanth, FB is part of shrinking red-tapism. “The other day, someone came with a grievance. He had posted the matter on FB that morning. We realised the issue had been settled already,” he says.
So when does the collector respond to the FB queries? “When I am travelling or sitting through a boring welcome speech. It is about putting your time to good use. And addressing public grievance is my work.”