I am not a fan of stories which indulge in what women in power wear.
While I am in the chamber of Shailaja Teacher though, I realise no one around me does either. She is the Minister for the Departments of Health, Social Justice and Woman and Child Development in Kerala, and more recently the ‘Corona Virus Slayer’ – surely her staff has better things to think about? My day of interaction with her has already begun, even without her being there yet – why did so many stories on her, national and international, feature her starched sarees and infectious laugh? The woman just schooled the entire world on how to tackle with the deadliest virus we have ever seen, who really cares whether she is still ironing her clothes, or being polite to the paparazzi?
Kerala had, at the very beginning of the lockdowns in India, reported the largest number of cases in the country. 524 cases later, in a state of 35million people, nearly 314 recovered as of early May, while 213 continued getting treatment at the hospitals in the state – the fastest and most effective response to the virus in the country, maybe also in some parts of the ‘developed’ world, so far. The casualty numbers stand at 4 – lowest any State affected in India has recorded, so far.
Coming back – the people who work with her, require us to semi-bathe our hands in sanitizer, wear masks, and remove our shoes by the stairs before we get to meet her in her office. As expected she is busy, but is more than welcome to have a quick chat.
‘I have 45 minutes,’ she promptly says, slightly apologetic, but fully aware that she doesn’t need to be. I am already in love.
BECOMING SHAILAJA ‘TEACHER’
In Kerala, people aren’t individual units – they are how they support their community, how accountable they are to each other. This sentiment transcends to how you get identified as well. It’s no surprise then that KK Shailaja is not just affectionately, but even officially known as Shailaja ‘Teacher’ – her erstwhile profession, “but also an ongoing one, in a way,” she quips.
“I was born in a political family, so it was never a transition into politics for me. I was always political,” Shailaja Teacher tells me when I ask her of her journey into the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M). Her grandparents and granduncles were all freedom fighters; her immediate family an active part of the Indian National Congress (INC) and its happenings. “Back then, the Communist Party had no structured existence, so I would be taken regularly, since the age of five, to INC party speeches by my grandmother,” she tells me.
It was later, when socialist attitudes started taking precedence in Kerala, and in her village, did she watch her family work with socialist ambitions along with the CPI(M). “They fought for land reforms which Kerala is still popular for, tenancy rights, and labour laws – all at my small village of Kunnoth, in Kannur district. These experiences had a huge positive impact on who I wanted to become and what kind of work I wanted to do at a primary level,” she says.
TO THE WOMEN IN HER LIFE
Shailaja Teacher makes no bones about who inspired her. She is nostalgic when she tells me: “my grandmother was every inspiration I ever needed. From taking me to party meetings (though I understood very little at that young age), to reading voraciously – books by Uroob to novels like Arabi Ponnu – she was my gateway to what life could, and eventually would, look like.” I may have been a bit too insistent in knowing more about her being a female leader figure in the State, quickly to be reminded that this was never an actual matter of contention in her life. To her, being a woman in political activism was no act of rebellion – just a natural course of direction.
Besides, when you are pampered by the right company as Shailaja Teacher had, taking onus of one’s own significance was almost subliminal. “I was the only daughter to three mothers,” she chuckles. “My grandmother, my mother and my aunt raised me with love, knowledge and tenacity. My only option was to speak truth to power with that kind of upbringing!”
THE PEOPLE’S TEACHER
“I don’t think enough people give credit to how much planning and strategy a teacher has to bring into her class,” Shailaja Teacher tells me. In her opinion, she continues being a teacher, and that’s what gives her both her calm and clarity and a humanistic approach towards State planning as the Minister for Health, Social Justice and Woman and Child Development, in Kerala.
After completing her B.Ed in 1980, she went on to be a teacher for nearly a decade. “I always wanted to either be a teacher or a lawyer,” she tells me. “Somehow as my political career started taking more of my time and effort, the higher education dream sat on the backburner.” When she finally took up politics fulltime in 2004, Shailaja Teacher knew that her vision with State development needed her where she could ask the tough questions to the right people. There was no turning back from there.
Teachers also have to constantly learn. “I must grow, so I know what best I can do in my position to support the people who trust me. I am constantly reading, on the go, learning to use technology to the best of its capabilities, so I am able to take a scientific approach, from a pragmatic space, without forgetting to provide dignity to my people,” she says.
I have often tried to paint a picture of who or what a ‘People’s Leader’ would look like – if there was anything as such at all. I think it took me that conversation with Shailaja Teacher to unlearn what I thought, when I thought of a ‘leader.’ Because in all the complexity of our times, or our conversations, there is only one thing Shailaja Teacher truly wanted to be – a good person.
ADDRESSING COVID-19 AT THE GRASSROOTS
Our world, as I see it, thinks that we run on a Band-Aid system. It thinks it’s hurt, and sticks an irrelevant Band-Aid to where the wound seemingly is – not what continues to cause the wounding.
Essentially, what I am saying is, Capitalism. Exactly what the ‘Kerala Model’ – as it’s popularly known over the decade – is not.
Anyone with an ounce of common logic and access to understanding the State’s primary healthcare system, will know that the reason Kerala contained the COVID-19 pandemic so well was because its grassroots wasn’t struggling for medical knowledge or access. But how?
Because Shailaja Teacher’s first step as a Health Minister in Kerala back in 2016, was to ensure that her primary healthcare systems were strengthened. “The Centre provides only 1% of its total budget towards Health, and we get whatever fraction is set aside for us from that as a State,” she narrates. “Obviously, Kerala had little money to restructure and revamp the healthcare system on its own from the scratch. But we strategized.”
It helped that Shailaja Teacher was from the grassroots herself, having studied in the hamlets of Kunnoth and Irutti, and doing a large part of her political work as a youngster in these regions. “We wanted to ensure that any person walking into a primary health care set up feels like they are getting the exact quality of treatment that they would get at a private hospital. This began right from creating the ambience, to getting the equipment, to ensuring that each of these hospitals had a nurse’s pre-checkup system in place,” she tells me. With the help of panchayat leaders, and health workers, the first set of upgraded Public Health Centres (PHCs) was built. “Once people started seeing that these centres were doing an excellent job of addressing health problems, while also welcoming them with quality and respect, they came forward to contribute and help us build more of them across the State!”
She feels, and rightly so, that having strengthened the health care access at the grassroots helped the government reach out to people from different walks of life, more effectively, especially when the COVID-19 crisis hit. “Our medical officers and our governance team had already established goodwill through the impact our reforms brought in. It didn’t take much for people to trust what we said anymore. Besides, they weren’t in the fear of not being able to safely access healthcare,” she tells me.
In the past three months, volunteers (nearly 1.2lakh of them) and ASHA workers have been working together along with frontline health care professionals and the government to ensure that people are aware, quarantined, and well equipped through-out this pandemic. “The credibility we had built through our PHCs, along with an early start at addressing the virus, a strategized system in testing, and collective conscious effort, has tied together neatly to help us fight this pandemic,” she says with all-knowing kind of confidence.
COVID-19 THEN, COVID-19 NOW – THE THIRD WAVE
May 19, 2018 marked the first day of a confirmed case of Nipah in Kerala. As Shailaja Teacher and I sat speaking on the same date, but in 2020, amidst the chaos of a new deadly virus, she couldn’t help but be reminded of how significant the journey has been since then to now.
“When Nipah came in, we didn’t know anything about the virus. But we had in place a team of excellent medical personnel and implementers, who worked together to ensure that the virus didn’t affect anyone else, or leave the State. Our rapid response team and transmission tracking techniques had worked then and that very learning, helped us gear up for COVID-19 earlier in January,” she informs me.
No stone was left unturned, as Kerala went under lockdown a few days before the national lockdown was announced. Every potential and existing patient was quarantined for 28days, initially. She elucidates the impact of the planning further to me. “We noticed that unplanned mass testing was neither yielding results nor helping the situation with limited testing kits. So we started home quarantining individuals with symptoms on a strict routine for 14days (unless they were already vulnerable otherwise). We ensured that the routine was followed by checking-in with them every day with the help of our volunteers, and placing strict regulations over anyone who’d cause trouble to the process. We then took them in to institutional quarantine if the symptoms persisted, while also parallely continuing our transmission tracking and testing.”
“I am proud to say that at least 80% of Kerala’s population followed regulations and kept us posted, by taking their own initiative to stay safe and keep others around them safe. This made our work a lot more streamlined and helped us work around whatever limited resources we had,” she tells me.
Shailaja Teacher was also one of the very few ministers in the country who took immediate action to support the trans community in the state. “We were sure that transgender people would be some of the worst affected during this lockdown and ensured that they were all placed in government-run homes if needed, provided meals and given adequate health care access,” she says.
She also speaks to me about how they quickly identified and reached out to sex-workers to educate them, especially with physical distancing regulations in place, and provided them with sufficient aid, knowing fully well that this period would affect their livelihoods the most. Migrant workers too where educated and comfortably housed across districts, avoiding the collateral deaths the nation has otherwise seen during its grossly unprepared lockdown.
As of May, the number of COVID 19 cases have spiked again in the state, owing to people returning from the Gulf, and the inter-State borders opening up. “This is a worry, definitely. But this is the third wave we were expecting anyway,” she says. “We are insisting on travel passes, institutional quarantine for anyone coming in from abroad or largely affected neighbouring States, and continuing our work with the help of our on-ground support team,” she adds.
Additionally, the Health Department is urging people to look into alternate medication like Ayurveda to improve on their immunity, as this new set of cases come in, threatening to spread the virus again. “Of course, we are not encouraging Ayurvedic medication as prescription to those already under quarantine or observation for the virus. However, Ayurveda has been known to build immunity, which we all need right now. So we are encouraging those healthy enough to start working on their immune systems better through this,” she tells me.
She also clearly doesn’t believe in the ‘herd immunity’ jargon that is going around. Diplomatically, she answers my prying question. “Every State is doing what it can do best for its people – we learn from each other and we take what’s best for us. As far as we are concerned, the isolation approach has worked best so far, and that is what we will be sticking to.”
“What has to come, will. The only way out of it, is to tackle it head on, with care and a scientific approach,” I am told, with the composure of a woman who knows exactly what she is up to.
BEING SHAILAJA TEACHER
If you haven’t already noticed, it’s not easy being Shailaja Teacher.
Beyond her role as the ‘Rockstar Health Minister’, she is a full person with a life of her own that demands well-deserved attention. In three years, she has dealt with two threatening viruses, two devastating floods, and a cyclone – all while having bare minimum funding or support for recalibration.
But from what she tells me of her day, it doesn’t seem like Shailaja Teacher particularly has any concept of a work-life balance. “My day begins quite early – maybe around seven – where I complete all my telephone calls, get my schedule for the day readied, and then go on to one-on-one meetings – which often end up getting delayed!” she tells me pointing at her watch, letting me know that it is at least 10 minutes beyond her promised 45 minutes.
“By three or four in the afternoon, I have my daily brief with the Chief Minister, to evaluate the situation in the State, which has taken on centre-stage now due to the pandemic. This is followed by the press meet, and then by a video conference at 7.30, meeting all the medical officers from our PHCs, listening to their updates and their needs. Tired or not, these are the conversations I look forward to – here is where we brainstorm together; where we acquire our ‘we feeling’ as a team. These are our real heroes,” she smiles a content smile as she tells me.
“Madhi Aano? (Is that enough?)” she asks me as she gets ready to leave, almost checking in with me if I was a happy enough child for the day. She obliges to a selfie (millennial, Instagram, celeb moment – you connect the dots), insists that we finish our pazham pori and chaya, and leaves.
As we pack our things, I cannot help but think: It demands immense strength as a leader to create a space that doesn’t infantilize the abilities of those they lead, and ensure their own accountability to it.
I begin to understand why Shailaja Teacher is neither feared nor fought in Kerala – she is one of us after all, in flesh and skin. And she doesn’t pretend to be any more or any less than that.