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KK Shailaja: Science is the truth. Without it, we cannot move forward

K.K. Shailaja, the former Kerala health minister, speaks about her new memoir, importance of data, tackling covid-19 and the Kerala model of development

KK Shailaja is the former minister for health, social justice, women and child development of Kerala. The 66-year-old is a member of the Kerala legislative assembly from the Mattanur constituency.
KK Shailaja is the former minister for health, social justice, women and child development of Kerala. The 66-year-old is a member of the Kerala legislative assembly from the Mattanur constituency. (Pradeep Gaur)

There was a sense of calmness and comfort when I sat down to speak with K.K. Shailaja, the former minister for health, social justice, women and child development of Kerala. The 66-year-old, who is a member of the Kerala legislative assembly from the Mattanur constituency and a CPI (M) central committee member, was in Delhi last month and there was probably no better place to meet than Kerala House on Jantar Mantar Road. “Whenever I’m in Delhi, I stay here,” she tells me during a lunch meeting. “You get proper Kerala food here and that is important.”

“Shailaja Teacher”, as she is popularly known, became an international icon a few years ago for her calm and composed approach while handling the covid-19 situation in Kerala. While she became the face of the state health department during her ministerial tenure from 2016-21, Shailaja insists that it was all a result of proper pre-planning and a lot of hard work by many people. “That is not my individual work,” she says. “It was the government’s policy and how I implemented it and led the medical, health community”.

Her work, which also included handling the 2018 Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, garnered worldwide attention when she was honoured by the United Nations in June 2020 for her efforts in the fight against covid-19.

All this and more has been brought together in the memoir My Life As A Comrade: The Story Of An Extraordinary Politician, co-authored by writer and editor Manju Sara Rajan and published earlier this week by Juggernaut.

In the past, Shailaja has written several books on gender, communism and public health in Malayalam. But this memoir is more personal—charting her life journey, going beyond politics and her work as the health minister of Kerala. “This book is somewhat different. These are memories of my family from the past, and the experiences and expectations of the present,” says Shailaja, adding that the book delves into the life of her family—she mentions in the book how she comes from a family in politics but not a family of politicians— their history with Marxism and the socialist ideology, among other things.

Many questions were asked in the political sphere when Shailaja was not included in Pinarayi Vijayan’s second cabinet of ministers in 2021. But this is something she addresses in the book, along with another situation where she declined the Ramon Magsaysay award in September 2022, swatting away any controversy elegantly.

“The thing that struck me is that she’s a really empathetic person,” says Rajan on the phone. “Part of the reason for that is that her own life experience, going through so many things, and her family’s stories gives her a great deal of empathy for people.”

This standout quality, says Rajan, is also reflected in her work. “That was really very important in the way she dealt with each of these crises. As I said in the book, Kerala doesn’t come from a very powerful financial position. But what has made the biggest difference, at least under her ministry, is that it had the intention to do a great job,” she adds.

The book took shape after multiple conversations between the two—from WhatsApp voice notes to video calls. Shailaja also spent time with Rajan in Kottayam, narrating key moments in her life that shaped her as a person and politician. “I would capture her recordings and then piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle. The conversations between us were completely in Malayalam. The amazing thing about her, because she’s a teacher, is that she understands the nuance of everything. Even when you are writing in English, she is very detail oriented,” Rajan adds.

When you speak from memory, you are not always talking in chronology. But Shailaja hopes the book will help people understand more about human nature and “what drives us”. She tells me: “Manju worked hard. I was narrating everything. I cannot say I did justice to everything because there are so many experiences… But everything that made it to the book were true and real things.” Edited excerpts:

In your TED Talk in 2021, you said you never expected to become a minister but you had enthusiasm and social feelings that you got from your grandmother. Can you tell us more about her role in your life?

She was a brave woman. She wasn’t highly educated. She studied till class VI, as I mentioned in the book, which was at that time considered high education. But she used to read a lot of books and novels. That was the goodness of her education.

She happened to be familiar with the communist ideology because at that time the socialist and communist ideology were spreading in the society after the Russian revolution. People came to know about the socialist thinking, and also about Karl Marx, (Friedrich) Engels.

My grandmother was the daughter of a man called Raman (Mestri), a supervisor in a British estate. At that time, that was a dignified job. That dignity got to my family also. But when my grandmother and her brothers were growing up, her elder brother Ravunni (one of Shailaja’s grand uncles) joined the Congress to become a local freedom fighter. Among all that, he happened to hear about Marxism, the socialist ideology. He was attracted to all that and became a passion for him. So did his brothers Damodaran and Krishnan (her other grand uncles). That’s how our family became a communist family.

I was lucky I could hear everything from my grandma... From their stories I got to know how they fought against caste oppression and the atrocities faced from landlords, the British and how they fought for freedom, to get a piece of land, to get education. These stories inspired me and I also became a party worker.

Political work, as you say in the book, can be really demanding. In that sense, do you think this book has found the balance between depicting your personal and professional life?

They are related to each other. We need to balance it well— personal life and political life. In some families, they don’t allow women to go outside. A woman’s duty or responsibility is inside the home—that is the conservative thought in the society. Even now, it is like that in many places.

Because my family was a political family, that background helped me. There was no restriction to go out but when I became a teacher, there was a double burden: as a teacher, a political worker, and also the household responsibilities. I had to balance that. That was a difficult job.

As a college-going student, I was given many exceptions at home. I used to travel a long distance for my college. My grandmother, my mother and aunts didn’t allow me to do any household work back then. But it is not like that after marriage. My mother-in-law was a very good woman and cooperative. She also liked my political activities. But I also handled my household responsibilities, which was not familiar to me before.

I know what difficulties women face when they work outside. As comrade Lenin said: they are shouldering the double burden —inside the home and outside the home.

I wasn’t shouldering all the household activities, but every morning I had to go to school as a teacher, manage my political work and attend meetings to build our organisation. I tried to balance all this. It is a difficult job—like a trapeze exercise in a circus.

Every woman political worker is going through this. Society should understand what burden women are shouldering. It will reduce if the household activities were shared by men and all the other family members.

You write in the book that Kerala has always been affected by tropical diseases. How important did this make your role in the ministry while you were in office?

It was a great job. Not only for me but also the government. Kerala faces these problems because of the terrain, climate, and humidity in the atmosphere. It is easy land for these kinds of viruses to grow. We also have a thick population.

Between 2016-21, we started four missions under the leadership of our chief minister. One was the Haritha Kerala mission, that is for the development of the agriculture sector and waste management. One mission was started to build houses for poor people. The other was for education reforms—to make schools high-tech. The other one was in the health sector, the Aardram Mission.

Through the Aardram Mission, the chief minister said that our hospitals should be patient friendly; we wanted to provide affordable and quality treatment to poor people. For those below the poverty line, we should provide free treatment. We tried our best to tackle this thing.

For topical diseases, we started a campaign called Arogya Jagrata. All the local bodies joined the health department to run the campaign. For example, if we reduce the mosquito population, we can reduce dengue fever. We propagated that and gained good results.

During your tenure, the state faced two major disease outbreaks: Nipah and covid-19. How different and challenging were these two situations? Would you have done anything differently at all?

Those years were very crucial. There were so many natural calamities and floods across the world due to climate change. We also faced two devastating floods in Kerala. The infectious disease Nipah occurred here. Covid took over the globe. Those were difficult days. But our chief minister said we should face this and every danger. We cannot run back.

My officers and I did a lot of pre-planning. The Nipah outbreak was sudden. We only knew about it after the outbreak. But once we knew it was Nipah, we didn’t allow it to spread. We cut the chain of spread (and transmission) at once. Covid was a different case... When we heard that a horrible virus is spreading in China, that’s when we started to prepare ourselves. Some people laughed at us. They said this was in China and you are opening the umbrella here. What is the use? I said no. It will come. There were Malayali students studying in Wuhan University. It will come through the flights.

We trained health officials and placed them at the airports. They screened passengers coming from other countries. That way we pre-planned and got results. But things have changed. Now we cannot lock down everything. New variants (of the covid-19 virus) are going around. But we have vaccines now and we can tackle the problem with other methods. You always need a plan A, plan B and plan C.

My Life As a Comrade, by KK Shailaja, with Manju Sara Rajan; 328 pages;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699; Juggernaut
My Life As a Comrade, by KK Shailaja, with Manju Sara Rajan; 328 pages; 699; Juggernaut (Juggernaut)

Do you think the covid-19 situation has been handled well across India?

Our country tried the best to tackle the problem. But some villages, especially in north India, suffered more because of the lack of public health facilities.

The lesson we learnt is this: strengthen the public health system. We should have primary health centres, with good facilities, in each and every village. In Kerala, we had the facilities earlier but we tried to improve on them. Work is going on to make it more technologically fit. Every state should do that. For that, the Central government should invest more money in the public health sector. The government should listen to the education and health sectors. We cannot privatise these things. If a pandemic strikes again, the poor cannot run to a private hospital for treatment. The government should have control on health and education. That is socialism. That is the difference.

But I fear the government is trying to privatise the health sector more. That is not good. We can promote the private sector. But the entire country should have a very good public health system. That is the lesson we have learnt from this pandemic

You are a student of science and you say in the book: go where the data leads you. How important is it for India to take both these aspects—science and data—seriously as we slowly try to come out of the pandemic?

That is the most important thing in free India. What is the meaning of freedom? To make people free to think about new things. You should get rid of these conservative ideas. Scientific thinking, scientific temper, scientific culture—these are the most important things. Jawaharlal Nehru once said to scientists after India gained freedom that all societies are normally conservative but our society is more than normally conservative.

We should inculcate scientific thinking among the people to get rid of superstitions, etc. Science is the truth. Without science, we cannot move forward. Without data, we cannot do anything. Without planning, no one can sustain.

During covid, someone said that applying cow dung to your body is a better way of getting rid of the virus. That was nonsense. We know about this virus and the difficulties it causes in our lungs. We should make the society scientific.

I am not a scholar. I am only a graduate in chemistry. Physics and maths were my other subjects that I used to teach. But I was fond of these subjects... I am not a medical graduate but I am familiar with technical terms. That was the use of my science graduation during covid.

Shailaja during the interview with Lounge at Kerala House on Jantar Mantar Road, New Delhi.
Shailaja during the interview with Lounge at Kerala House on Jantar Mantar Road, New Delhi. (Pradeep Gaur)

As a former teacher, what is your reaction to the recent revisions in NCERT textbooks, which includes some key deletions as well?

It is horrible. Human culture is a mix of so many things. In India, there were so many rulers, kings, several provinces... After independence, all these provinces joined together to make an India.

The languages are different, the eating habits are different in every part. There are more than six religions here. All these people united to form a country... There should not be a caste difference or a difference in religion—everyone should come together and study. We should approach education that way.

During the Mughal era, so many tombs, structures were made— the Taj Mahal is an example. There was also good town planning. They also included all the religions. For most of the kings, the ministers were Hindus...

In the new syllabus, they are excluding the Mughal era from history. But it was there. It is the reality. India faced that reality—it got some good things, some bad things. We cannot exclude these things from our history.

We cannot blame one religion. We should be able to accept good things from every culture.

Finally, the Kerala model of development. Do you still believe that other states can match or emulate that model? What would be the first steps to do so?

No one can imitate anything. But we can make it an example. Kerala is not a rich state. Our revenue income is too low. But social service activities are rampant in Kerala. That is the pivot of our ideology—to supply food, housing, education for everybody. But we cannot stop there.

Land reform is something that all states can look up to, as an example. Everyone should get ownership of a piece of land. That will make them dignified human beings.

Most of the educational institutions should be kept under the government. Decentralisation and decentralised planning is something that has been implemented well in Kerala. We are giving freedom to the panchayats—they can form their own projects and work according to their situation.

People planning is something that can be used everywhere. Kerala should also learn from other states that are doing new things.

Also read: How millennials lifted Kerala

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