Not a reader of books but as reader of people's minds, Oommen Chandy is unsurpassed

The 'mass contact' events demonstrated more than Chandy's desire to be with the people. Photo: Sameer A Hameed

Those who have followed Oommen Chandy closely know that he is not a bibliophile. Chandy himself was never shy to admit that he was not a great lover of books.

This disinterest in books stemmed from an Oommen Chandy idiosyncrasy that is universally known: He dislikes any activity that will not have a crowd around him. "It is a lonely pursuit," Chandy had once famously said about reading books.

This is also why he hates to watch television or movies at home; going to the theatre he realised would be an inconvenience to others and so was avoided. Once Mohanlal asked him whether he had seen any of his films. Chandy said, "Oh, yes". How many? "One.". Mohanlal was both amused and embarrassed. "Which," he managed to ask. "Manjil Virinja Pookkal" (Mohanlal's first film).

For such a man, who wanted nothing other than to be with the masses, the Mass Contact Programme he launched in 2011 would have been the ultimate act of selfishness. Just that the leader's selfishness tallied with the needs of his people.

Rahul Gandhi and Oommen Chandy
Oommen Chandy and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during the party's 'Bharat Jodo Yatra', in Chungathara. Photo: PTI/ File

The last man standing
The mass events were organised in large public spaces in districts - mostly stadiums and massive public auditoriums - from 9 am to 5 pm, a bureaucratically convenient time. But invariably, these events would extend beyond midnight.

Policemen on duty would have been replaced and officials would have either sneaked home or dozed off at the venue but Chandy would still be standing, collecting applications and listening to grievances. There were no lunch or supper breaks for him. Occasional quarter glasses of milk porridge were the only nourishment he allowed himself.

It is in this sleep-deprived half-starved condition that Chandy covered all 14 districts. Not once but three times; in 2011, 2013 and 2015.

These 'mass contact' events demonstrated more than Chandy's desire to be with the people. It revealed his amazing knowledge of governance laws. "Tell Oommen Chandy a problem and he will know the exact law or scheme or project that can solve it. If there are none, he will amend the law," a senior IAS officer, who was collector during Chandy's tenure, told Onmanorama.

Supplier of boons
The mass contact programme held in Thiruvananthapuram on October 18, 2013, was a 16-hour affair. Thousands of applications were collected and he listened to nearly 400 applicants that day.

One was a girl with a spinal injury. She came along with an older woman. They had waited for nearly three hours in the queue before they reached the Chief Minister.

Chandy collected her application and went through it. She wanted money for treatment. Chandy jotted something on the application and handed it over to the district collector who was by his side. The girl was sanctioned Rs 50,000 from the Chief Minister's Relief Fund.

He looked at the woman who came with the girl and asked whether she was her mother. She said she was her 'chechiamma' (mother's elder sister). Chandy wanted to know about the girl's parents. The woman said the girl's father had died five years ago and her mother had been bedridden after a fall two months ago. "Does her mother have a pension," came the sudden query.

The woman nodded no. "My sister is young, sir. She was a contract sweeper in a government office and after the fall she is unable to go to work. Doctors say she won't be able to go to work again," the woman said.

Chandy then took back the application from the collector, thought for a moment, scribbled something on the application, and told the collector. "Do one thing. Talk to her local body. Ask them to do a quick verification and once it is clear, immediately sanction the family a monthly pension under the Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme," he said.

The girl just wanted some money for treatment. Now, her mother might get a monthly pension.

Grandmother's concern
All this while, some 15-20 people behind was a cheerful sixtyish-looking woman who was carrying a child with cerebral palsy. By around three, when she was third in the queue, she called out to the Chief Minister. "You have been standing all day. Can't you take a break and eat something," she said.

The mass contact programme held in Thiruvananthapuram on October 18, 2013, was a 16-hour affair. Photo: Manorama

Chandy looked up from the application he was poring over. "Sir, eat something. We don't mind," she said with a disarming smile. Chandy smiled back. "I am being served 'kanji' at frequent intervals. I noticed you standing in the queue with the child right from the morning. Did you have anything to eat," he asked.

"We just want to meet you. So it is fine," she said. "I too just want to meet you," he said. Everyone laughed.

The woman came seeking monthly assistance to take care of the child. "The panchayat says only mothers will get assistance," the woman told the Chief Minister. "His mother, my daughter, died in childbirth. I am her only guardian," she said.

Live disability certificate
Chandy immediately asked the senior revenue official by his side whether she can be included in the 'Swashraya' scheme. "That's only for mothers and that too only for those below the age of 55," the official said. "Don't worry, we will make an amendment to extend the scheme to guardians, too," Chandy said.

Oommen Chandy
Oommen Chandy. Photo: Manorama

One of the officials asked the woman to show the child's disability certificate. Since she was carrying the child, the woman found it difficult to take the certificate from a plastic bag she was carrying. The Chief Minister asked the woman to give the child to him. The woman was perplexed but, still smiling cheerfully, she passed on the child. Seeing the boy in the Chief Minister's arms, her eyes started to well up.

The officer who had asked for the certificate was taken aback by Chandy's sudden gesture. Embarrassed, he offered to hold the child. Chandy looked at the officer and said softly: "If you want more proof that the child has a disability then I will hand him to you." The official had a sheepish smile. When the grandmother handed him the certificate, he gave it back to her without even looking at it.

In between, looking at the child in his arms, Chandy asked: "Ninte ammommakku ninne nokkaan varumanam vallathum undo?" (Does your grandmother have any money to look after you?) The woman is already finding it hard to control her tears. "I have a son. He is married and has two kids and one of them is like this one. He doesn't have enough for his family. Still, he spares something for me and this boy," she said.

"How old are you," Chandy asked. " I will be 67 next month," she said. He had already asked that the grandmother be included in the Swashraya scheme. Now, Chandy asked the revenue officials to grant her a monthly social security pension, too.

Like the girl with a spinal cord injury, the grandmother with the autistic grandchild also got more than what she came for.

Marathon man
That day, after a marathon 16-hour mass contact programme, Chandy met 376 people personally and disbursed Rs 1.88 crore as relief to 1692 people. Of this, at least 100 were handicapped or paraplegic. It marked the start of the second phase of the Chief Minister’s mass contact programme.

Barely ten days later, on October 27, CPM workers pelted stones at him in Kannur. One rock found its way to his chest and he had to be hospitalised. Chandy was arriving at the venue of the mass contact programme in Kannur when he was bombarded with stones. After the first phase in 2011, Chandy's mass contact won the United Nations' Public Service Award.

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