“It is important to keep trying, to keep fixing, to make small improvements to a broken system so all of this will finally add up to a transformation.”K.K. Shailaja‘My Life as a Comrade’ by K.K. Shailaja with Manju Sara Rajan
In late January 2020, when the first COVID-19 cases were detected in Kerala among those returning from Wuhan, China, the government lost little time in setting up a task force. K.K. Shailaja was the Health Minister at the time. For a State first ravaged by Cyclone Ockhi (2017), then the outbreak of Nipah (May 2018), followed by unprecedented rainfall that resulted in the floods of 2018, COVID was the unkindest cut.
Containing the spread of the pandemic proved to be the litmus test for both Shailaja and the LDF government led by the CPI(M).
Shailaja received many accolades for the successful containment effort she launched and, in the midst of the second wave in 2021, when the Kerala Assembly election was held, she won a landslide victory.
But Shailaja does not take individual credit for her work and indeed she was replaced as Health Minister by the Kerala government. She was instead appointed party whip and chairperson of the State’s Estimates Committee.
In her memoir, My Life as a Comrade, Shailaja talks of her experiences and life as a politician without rancour or bitterness.
The book was released on April 28 in New Delhi by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat. In an interview to Frontline, she spoke about the book and various issues covered in it. Excerpts:
Why did you feel the need to write an autobiography? You still have many years of political life ahead of you.
I did not exactly intend to write an autobiography. One and a half years ago, some publishers called me as there was news coming from Kerala about COVID-19. They were interested in my tenure. That’s how it happened. It is more like a memoir.
I always wanted to write about my grandmother, Kalyani, who was a doughty woman and had a lasting influence on me. Her brothers were political activists in the freedom movement and vocal opponents of caste atrocities. They were arrested and tortured for raising their voices. Their lives, as told to me by my grandmother and mother, left a lasting impact on me.
You received a lot of appreciation for the handling of COVID. Yet, Kerala had more confirmed cases and deaths per lakh population. Why do you still consider Kerala’s COVID management one of the best?
As you know, COVID came to Kerala from Wuhan. Because of our experience with Nipah, we were very alert. I was familiar with Wuhan as some students had approached me for doing their internship there after their MBBS. I told the Health Secretary that we had to be alert. He agreed that vacation had begun in Wuhan and anticipated that students would be returning from there. It was January 20.
We decided to set up a control room in the Health Department. It was only a distribution of duties at that stage. I discussed it with the Chief Minister and he said I should do all that was required.
We set up 18 expert groups to cover every aspect. Since we were already conducting mock drills for Nipah, we converted them to drills for COVID. On January 27, the flight came from Wuhan. We started screening passengers and had made preparation to quarantine them if necessary. Among them, three medical students showed symptoms and we isolated them. All three tested positive. There was no spreading as we isolated them from their families.
We began strengthening our health system and the oxygen supply. The Chief Minister also called private health providers and asked them to provide beds in case the need arose.
We were asked by some colleagues in the opposition in the Assembly to use the “mitigation method” that was prevalent in the US. Some 25 people had already died in the US by then. There were no casualties in Kerala at that point. There were suggestions that it was better to let the virus out in the population for herd immunity. But we could not take that risk as the virus was unpredictable.
In Kerala, we have some challenges. Ours is a most vulnerable State in terms of infectious diseases due to its population density of 860 persons per square kilometre, double the national average. We had to be more careful.
Also, almost 50 per cent of our elderly population have co-morbidities. Kerala also has a high rate of non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cancer.
I had closely studied the public health system when I became Minister in 2016. The primary health system had weakened after the 1980s and there was more focus on speciality treatment. I wanted to revamp the system to strengthen primary care and prevention, but due to the floods and COVID, I did not get much time.
Finally, when the vaccine came, there was short supply. We requested for the technology from the Centre so that we could produce it ourselves. But we were denied. Then we ordered for 1.5 crore vaccines from Serum Institute; we were told we could only order 10 lakh or 20 lakh.
We formed a strategy of trace, quarantine, test, and treat. There was also a lot of doubt about our figures…whether we were hiding figures.
I felt bad as we were working very transparently. My only concern was to reduce the death toll. We have a very robust system of death registration in Kerala. Even if family members do not register, ward members and anganwadi members ensure and encourage families to register deaths.
So, reporting of deaths, by COVID or otherwise, was accurate. By end-2020, the mortality rate was 0.04 per cent.
In February 2021, elections were declared. I cannot say that everything took a turn for the worse but strict controls over movement could not be enforced.
Oxygen shortages were rampant in that period, including in Delhi. How did you manage this in Kerala?
In 2020 itself, we anticipated the need for oxygen. We had a joint meeting with the Industries Department, where I asked about oxygen supplies. I was told there was a half-constructed plant in Palakkad which was privately owned. I was told if the government helped, the plant could be constructed fully. Within two months it was completed and Tamil Nadu also received the excess oxygen from there. We increased oxygen supply to medical colleges and hospitals, with oxygen lines to every bed. Some hospitals also installed their own oxygen plants. There was no scarcity of oxygen.
The government replaced you as Health Minister in the middle of the pandemic. Did it affect the efficiency with which the State managed the situation?
It was collective work by all departments, led by the Chief Minister. The party had decided in 2021 that there should be fresh names in the new Cabinet save for the top post. The media asked me if I was disappointed. I have addressed it in the book as well.
I never dreamt that I would be a Minister. The party asked me to take on the responsibility; now it had asked me to go back to party work. I am a party cadre. From the very first day, we have been taught that parliamentary and extra-parliamentary work are the same.
Many people were disappointed that you were no longer the Health Minister.
It is emotional, you know. In that period people became familiar with my work. I felt that they loved me. I may be wrong. But it is not that I was the only one who could have done that work.
- ‘I always wanted to write about my grandmother, Kalyani, who was a doughty woman and had a lasting influence on me.’
- ‘I wanted to revamp the system to strengthen primary care and prevention, but due to the floods and COVID, I did not get much time.’
- ‘I am a party cadre. From the very first day, we have been taught that parliamentary and extra-parliamentary work are the same.’
In your book, you write: “Having a philosophy or a belief that is larger than us helps us deal with the minute disappointments that pepper our lives.” Is that how you dealt with disappointments, if any, in your life?
Because of the belief in the communist ideology, we convince ourselves each time about what are we working for, what we stand for. It is for changing society. It is with a certain discipline that one works. We are not like social democrats. Besides, I am an ordinary party worker, not an extraordinary one as I have been described in the book somewhere.
A good part of the book is devoted to how your grandmother and grand-uncles influenced your thought process.
I was born in 1957. When my grand-uncles became communists and my great-grandfather Raman Mestri died, we lost most of the 50 acres of land he had been gifted by the landlord. My grandmother had no job. No one knew the value of land then. Most of it was uninhabitable. My ‘ammamma’ (grandmother) was generous. Everyone knew that if anyone asked Kalyaniamma, as she was known, for some land, she would give unhesitatingly. And then most of the land was given for party work. It was natural. One of my uncles discontinued his studies and took to tailoring to feed the family. With that little money he would buy tea and sugar and prepare tea for all of us at home. My mother and her sister had to work in the paddy fields even though they did not know farm work.
As a child, I did not understand the nature of the crisis as I was fed properly, but the adults had a tough time. The philosophy that came home, through the stories of my ‘ammamma’, the caste atrocities by landlords, and atrocities by the Malabar Special Police, including the travails faced by my grand-uncles and uncles, left an impact on me.
During childhood I saw untouchability being practised. Holes were dug in the ground and the gruel poured into it for those considered untouchable.
“It is not that I was the only one who could have done that work.”K.K. ShailajaFormer Health Minister, Kerala
You write that women’s education status has not resulted in equal representation for them, especially in the workforce. You also write that violence against women is endemic in Kerala, as also in all other parts of the country, and that superstition and patriarchal belief systems still exist.
In Kerala, good things have happened. Every girl can go to college. Every woman goes for Kudumbashree meetings. These trends were not there earlier. Even though women are getting educated in Kerala, they are not interested in social or political work. ...The worrying part is the growing conservatism. Women need to be bolder and question blind regressive beliefs. We as communists need to respond to the new challenges. The approach cannot be the same as before.
In the chapter ‘The Eternal Balancing Act’, you write about going through a lot of guilt as you were unable to give adequate time to your children, teaching, and party work?
It was tough handling home, party work, and teaching. But I got a lot of support from my husband, Bhaskarettan. When I was a teacher, after 4 p.m. I used to rush off for party work. I think every woman goes through guilt, balancing work and home.