In conversation with Prasanth Nair: fighting hunger with compassion in Kerala

10 August 2023
SERIES Voices of change in Asia 4 items

Welcome to our interview series featuring changemakers across Asia, where we delve into policy and change processes that are shaping the region. In this article, Annapoorna Ravichander, Executive Director of the Public Affairs Foundation in Bangalore, India, talks to Prasanth Nair, Special Secretary to the Government of Kerala, as well as a prize-winning film director. 

Question: Please introduce yourself!

I am Prasanth Nair, a former lawyer and now a civil servant and a film director. 

I grew up in Thiruvananthapuram and wanted to be a cinematographer in my childhood. However, I started preparing for the civil services when I was in the 1st year of my graduation. 

I cleared the civil services examinations in 2007 and became part of the esteemed Indian Administrative Services of India.  I have worked in several departments and sectors including taxation, tourism, roads, skills development, water supply. and have also been a part of two major World Bank projects. 

I have also acted in a few movies, including Ajay Devaloka’s ‘Who’, and my directorial debut ‘Daivakanam’ which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Q: How has your film work informed your civil service work?

The intersection of film work and civil service, for me, has been profoundly enriching. 

Filmmaking is about storytelling, about presenting narratives that resonate with diverse audiences. It requires empathy and emotional connect with the public. 

This perspective has enabled me to better understand the narratives and aspirations of the people I serve. 

It helps me to envision governance not just as a system of regulations and procedures, but as a continuous dialogue with citizens, making them feel seen, heard, and represented.

Q: Can you explain what the Operation Sulaimani initiative is and how you initiated it?

Operation Sulaimani (OpSu) holds a very special place in my heart. It’s an incredible initiative that brings together the people of Kozhikode to fight hunger with an outpouring of compassion. 

We started this beautiful campaign as a beacon of hope, reaching out to those in need, one meal at a time. Witnessing the plight of the hungry in our community moved us deeply, and we knew we had to do something about it. The ‘Compassionate Kozhikode‘ campaign became our driving force, uniting us all to make a meaningful difference and ensure that no one goes to bed hungry. 

OpSu is modelled on the ‘food on the wall’ or ‘paying ahead’ concept that is popular in Europe, suitably customised for the Indian scenario. 

Q: What were the main challenges you encountered in developing and implementing the initiative?  How did you navigate these?

Developing OpSu was not without its share of challenges. Convincing restaurants to join this cause was a task in itself. 

We approached each establishment with fervent determination, emphasising the immense positive impact their participation could have on countless lives. 

Preserving the anonymity of the sponsors was crucial, as it instilled a sense of dignity and respect in the act of giving. 

To ensure this, we implemented robust systems and guidelines, cherishing the spirit of giving without seeking recognition. Dignity of the beneficiaries was paramount. 

Q: Where do you seek evidence from to inform decision-making for OpSu? And what kind of evidence do you find most useful?

Evidence is the backbone of our decision-making process. We draw from multiple sources to gauge the impact of OpSu. 

Counting sponsored meals is essential, but it goes beyond numbers for us. We seek heartfelt feedback from the beneficiaries themselves, for their stories touch us deeply and drive us to do more. 

Hearing about the positive change in their lives reaffirms the significance of our mission. 

Social impact assessments, surveys, and open conversations with stakeholders enrich our understanding, helping us refine and improve the initiative. Ideally, we would like fewer people availing their benefit of OpSu. 

Q: How do you measure the impact of your initiative? How do you use evidence to refine and improve the initiative over time?

Measuring the impact is both humbling and inspiring. We count every sponsored meal as a triumph of compassion. But it’s the personal stories of transformation that make it all worthwhile. 

We listen to the voices of those whose lives we touch, and it is through their experiences that we learn and grow. Their stories help us refine our approach and adapt to the ever-changing needs of our community.

Evidence guides our path, ensuring that OpSu remains a beacon of hope, lighting the way for a hunger-free Kozhikode. The real transformation has been with restaurant owners and volunteers who participated in the implementation of the project and this includes me! 

The time and resources needed for social impact assessments, surveys, and open conversations vary widely based on the scope and depth of the projects. Generally, these activities might span over weeks to several months. 

We believe in the principle of continuous engagement, so these exercises are ongoing at different scales and frequencies. While there might not be dedicated monitoring, evaluation, and learning specialists for every project, we collaborate with external agencies specialising in these domains. 

Once data is gathered, it is analysed and synthesised into actionable insights. These insights are then utilised in a structured manner, ensuring that the voices of the stakeholders are at the heart of policy decisions and implementations. 

While anecdotal feedback mostly drives us, such structured feedback has to validate us periodically.

Q: It seems like collaboration between government departments, think tanks, civil society organisations, and other stakeholders was essential for driving forward OpSu? Would you agree, and if so, what advice would you offer to other changemakers to facilitate effective collaboration among these diverse actors?

Collaboration and co-creation has been the lifeline of OpSu. We are immensely grateful for the support we’ve received from various stakeholders who share our vision of a compassionate Kozhikode. The collective efforts of government departments, think tanks, NGOs, and businesses have fortified this initiative and given it wings to soar. 

To all changemakers, I’d say, embrace collaboration with an open heart. Engage with stakeholders as partners, valuing their unique contributions. Trust and inclusivity foster meaningful partnerships that fuel positive change. Together, we can create a symphony of kindness, harmonising for the betterment of society. 

Compassion, I believe is the ultimate key to better administration.