Why Kannur Collector Mir Mohammed Ali is someone all Indian youth should look up to

IAS officer Mir Mohammed Ali, the collector of Kannur, is not only transforming the face of the district which was once bloodied with frequent political violence, there's a lot more to him as a person
Mir Mohammed Ali IAS is the Collector of Kannur for the past 2 years| Pics: Manu R Mavelil
Mir Mohammed Ali IAS is the Collector of Kannur for the past 2 years| Pics: Manu R Mavelil

Red-tapism and related paraphernalia are alien to the new generation of bureaucracy. You've been following them on Facebook and Twitter constantly. Not just that, the long queues at the collectorates and government offices are getting shorter. Also, sirs and ma'ams are now bros and dudes. We recently caught up with a rider of this wave of change, Mir Mohammed Ali IAS, the District Collector of Kannur. We do remember him, don't we? He's the very same officer who introduced the revolutionary Map My Home project a couple of years ago.

If Kannur made it to news a decade ago for all the wrong reasons — from political violence to bomb-making — the district can proudly say that they have a lot of innovative projects underway today. A year ago, it became the first plastic-free district in the state. In addition, people have been fighting the menace of fake news and the dropout rate among the tribes have come down so much. And lots of people credit this change to one man. This is his story.

You can't fake it till you make it

Like every young IAS officer, Mir was very excited about his new role when he was posted to Kannur. "There weren't too many difficulties," says this Chennaiite who passed out of B S Abdur Rahman Crescent Institute of Science and Technology before doing writing the UPSC exam, "I had worked in other departments in other districts in Kerala previously." But soon he realised that the issue of fake news was rampant and was creating a lot of trouble. A major blow came when people abstained from getting their children vaccinated against Measles. "Many people decided to not vaccinate their kids because there were rumours spread through social media saying that the vaccination is harmful. The numbers weren't in hundreds or thousands but in lakhs. Imagine the reach of fake news," he exclaims. When that happened, the man who cracked into the IAS cadre in 2011 was determined to come up with a way to fight it. 

Along with his team, Mir devised strategies to get through to kids, and thus, talk to parents. "Most of these vaccinations are given in schools. So we asked a few children why they weren't getting it despite their teachers' persuasion. I asked if they do not trust their teachers. They said they do, but vaccines are harmful and despite taking them, they still fall ill," Mir tells us. That's how deeply entrenched the belief had become because of WhatsApp forwards.

Listen up: Mir taking the class on fake news

So, they came up with a programme to make kids more aware of the truth. A team of volunteers developed a module on fake news, its sources and repercussions. "We had to create a conversation and make people aware that this is a threat for our well being, but at the same time we can tackle it by being skeptical and by adapting systems to identify fake news," he says. Mir kickstarted the campaign by taking the first class for a group of teachers, who in turn educated their students on this. "All government schools in Kerala have smart classrooms and this made things much easier. Teachers also used the same presentation that I made," he says adding, "Fake news is an interesting subject. Everyone has a stake in it."

I was very excited when I got posted as the collector. This is a post that all IAS officers want. It allows you maximum leeway. You're not restricted to one department here

Mir Mohammed Ali, Collector, Kannur

So why does one share fake news? Mir has an answer to this. "We all have a journalist inside us who wants to break news. That overpowers our instinct to check the source. We're all suckers for new information," he says Through the campaign, the students were also shown examples of how people who spread fake news and messages were booked by the police. They were also taught to look for the source whenever they get a piece of information. "It's not just confined to fake news. You must check the source of everything — from universities to job profiles to product information. It's easier to have this discussion with children because they tend to pick it up much better. We're giving them the means to be safe if they wish to be safe," he says.

Because classes are cool

Aralam Farm is a massive tribal resettlement in Kannur that borders Karnataka. There is one government school for the children there which had a very low enrolment ratio. A lot of private schools there were keen on enrolling these children for the sake of getting the government's grants, but once the children enrolled, they didn't really do much. "We wanted to get as many kids to go to this school. A year and a half ago, we identified kids who got to school regularly. We enrolled them and then one day, we took them to the city and showed them the lighthouse, a mall and to a video game arcade. They had an unlimited supply of game coins and could play for as long as they wanted. Later, they had food and spent some time at a park," Mir says. They also got to visit the Kannur Collectorate where the Collector himself introduced them to Facebook and YouTube and the possibilities that the internet held. The message was clear: come to school and you get to go on this fun trip, "Now kids were under the impression that if they go to this school, they get to go on this really fun trip," Mir laughs. 

As the attendance increased, they developed smart classes and also organised more such trips. The network was pretty weak in that area. The solution was to get a high-speed optic fibre connection. Mir tells us how the smart classroom in the Aralam Farm High School is among the best in the entire district.

Fly high: The students of Aralam Farm High School before their first flight

If you think this is awesome, wait for it. There's more. While all the students in class X managed to pass the board exams, all of them got to have a fun day in Kochi and they flew back to Kannur from the Kochi Airport. Mir remembers how this created a huge ripple effect in that area. Suddenly, the enrolment rates went up. The next year, the school got a playground and special classes based on quizzes were conducted based on the curriculum. This year, the results were even better, with two students scoring more than 90 per cent. Mir now plans to take these children on a flight trip from the soon-to-be inaugurated Kannur International Airport.

Zomato for government offices?

How many times have we been to a government office and come back with a frown because the officials were not helpful at all? On the other hand, some of us would have had experiences where the officers were extremely helpful. What if we had a platform to consolidate these responses, just like Zomato or TripAdvisor? News flash, Kannur does have one of those. The We Are Kannur app is the perfect solution. "We are continuously grappling with making government offices more courteous and responsive.  Being unhelpful is not a crime. Lacking courtesy is not corruption. But how do we ensure that courteous behaviour is more common? In this app, you get to review a government office or a particular officer. The review can be read by everyone including the officer and his/her colleagues. This gives us a more qualitative feed," says Mir.

Rate him: Using the We Are Kannur app, people can rate government officers and that includes Mir as well

Between his administrative work and his other literary pursuits, there are a whole lot of projects that are about to come up and Mir's enthusiasm is undented as he goes through life. He is currently working on a project to ease the learning of Malayalam online through videos. Will this be Malayalam's very own Rosetta Stone? Let's see.

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