It is 7:40am and about 20,000 people have assembled near a college in this Kerala town.
Long queues of the old, young, women and children snake around all the entrances to the campus. Hundreds of them are wheelchair bound patients.
The college is the venue of Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy’s second edition of mass contact programme that won him this year’s United Nations Public Service Award in the Preventing and Combating Corruption in the Public Service category. He travels to each district, listens to people’s problems and issues on-the-spot orders to officials.
As the 70-year-old CM talks to HT, in the modest room of the college principal filled with Congress leaders in starched khadi mundu and shirt, Kunjamma, a
74-year-old ailing woman, gasping for breath, was escorted in.
She informs the CM she spent the previous night on the floor of the college building. Kunjamma can regain vision in both eyes if she undergoes a surgery. She also has a heart ailment.
“Call the DMO (district medical officer),” Chandy directs an official. He then writes on Kunjamma’s application: “Rs 10,000.... DMO to take special care".
This intimacy with the state’s highest elected official is the biggest pull. About 70% of the visitors have come for monetary help from the chief minister’s relief fund. Others have come to complain about ration cards. Petitions of public interest such as demand for a school building are fewer.
For prompt redress, officials of all major state departments have put up their stalls here. And it looks like a mela of the masses.
The programme is also indicative of the fact that India's most literate state with human development parameters comparable to some countries in the Europe has an unresponsive bureaucracy.
"I don't blame officials. Rather, I work with them towards finding solutions to people's issue,” Chandy said, when asked whether the chief executive of the state was doing the duty of his bureaucracy.
“For me this is the sure way to bridge the gap between the government and the people. I can read social changes here, I also understand how shortcomings in governance impact the lives of the poor and make amends,” Chandy said.
The district collector can disburse up to Rs 10,000 from the CM's relief fund on proper enquiry.
“That rarely happens. That's why I am here,” said K Ponnappan, standing in a queue, seeking a small pie from the fund.
The CM believes his contact with people help in making laws people friendly. For example, the CM can now sanction Rs 10, 000 from the relief fund for medical treatment.
"Getting death certificate used to be such a difficult task. We changed the rule to ensure that local body of the area where the burial or cremation took place will issue the death certificate now,” said Chandy.
As many as 47 such government orders that came out of the mass programme have simplified the job of the administration.
But does it mean the CM will continue to do the jobs that an efficient government machinery could have done anyway?
"I don't think that way. I do my bit to help the people. I don't have a habit of blaming officials,” the CM said.
That approach seems to have made a difference. K Rajamma, who is waiting for her turn to meet the CM, said, “Unlike the collector and village officer, I can at least meet the CM without people shouting at me or throwing me out of visitors' rooms in offices."
The CM is willing to meet all of them.
"I will meet all of you, bear with me if it gets too late,” he tells the audience at the beginning of the programme from a podium where 12 other united democratic front leaders and the district collector are seated.
The mass politician in Chandy, a 10-term legislator, knows being with people is his best defence against attack from opposition.
His mass contact programme runs late into nights or even into the next day. Chandy, a frugal eater, also becomes more frugal with his diet--- oats and butter milk-- to survive the gruelling sessions.
So far, about 2 lakh petitions have been received and examined at these programmes. People can register their complaints online. Almost half of them are settled before the programme begins. The rest of them come up for redress during the programme, along with thousands of new complaints, which will be acknowledged and posted for resolution soon.
At this edition, the CM is set to solve 179 cases related to relief funding and 500 about ration cards. In a total of 10,822 petitions, 5,328 have been solved before the event, where Rs 10 lakh were also disbursed.