Public health literature, pedagogy and classroom as a shared space


Few months ago I wrote a small article for a student magazine. It was on how classrooms need to be more inclusive, sensitive to issues of marginalizations and empowering. I also vented out my frustation with the discriminatory nature of some of the readings and examples I often come across in my class as a public health student. Here it is:


“Epidemiology is the study of disease patterns in man.” “Disease is what a doctor diagnoses after seeing signs and symptoms of a patient, illness is what he (a patient) feels and experiences, and sickness is what the society ascribes him.” “A doctor should be sensitive to the socio-economic conditions of his patients.” “Health services in India face massive shortage of manpower.”

These are some of the common sentences I regularly hear and read in my classroom where I am trying to learn about public health. Every time I read or hear such a sentence, I cringe. Do you see why? If you don’t, read them again.

“Epidemiology is the study of disease patterns in MAN.

“Disease is what a doctor diagnoses after seeing signs and symptoms of a patient, illness is what HE (a patient) feels and experiences, and sickness is what the society ascribes HIM.”

“A doctor should be sensitive to the socio-economic conditions of HIS patients.”

“Health services in India face massive shortage of MANpower.”


At such moments, ‘public’ in public health seems like a misnomer to me. Exclusive male pronouns or examples are often attempted to pass off as ‘universal’. I sometimes argue and even protest, but mostly, I sulk. A friend of mine tells me that I am overreacting and that it is not the linguistics – a ‘he’ here and there (or everywhere?) that should bother me. Rather, I should focus on the content. Okay, for a moment, I consider the argument, knowing very well that it’s a ‘he’ telling me not to bother too much about exclusive use of ‘he’. I try to take refuge in the academic works that a novice in public health like myself is supposed to revere. But there too, I end up being frustrated.

Take for example, the Bhore Committee Report of 1946 that foregrounded the field of public health in India. It was much ahead of its time when it talked about social determinants of health, occupational health, mental health and various other measures. However, one of its recommendations was that more women should be recruited for nursing jobs as they were more ‘fit’ to do that. Another milestone, the Sohkey Committee report of 1947 went a step even further in suggesting that more women were needed in medical profession so that men could be free to do the ‘more’ important works related to nation building! Interestingly, the Bhore Committee was influenced by the Beveridge Report of 1942 which founded the Welfare State in England. I wonder what stopped the Committee to be influenced by the women’s movement of that very country which was also raising important questions during those very times.

Another example is that of what is commonly called the ‘Ratcliffe study’. Indeed, this study is one of the finest in health research, breaking myths of ‘objectivity’ and stressing on value criticality and systems approach in research processes. But what is hardly ever noticed is that the study was co-authored by John W. Ratcliffe AND Amalia Gonzalez-del-Valle. How come, then, the study is exclusively called the ‘Ratcliffe study’ and not the ‘Ratcliffe and Gonzalez-del-Valle study’? If the first author logic is to be applied here, why do we still call many co-authored seminal works such as the Banerji and Anderson’s study of Tuberculosis or the recent Dreze and Sen’s book and so on and so forth? Just wondering.

To be honest, I do not intend this write up to be feminist critique of the mainstream public health literature since I have no qualification to write one. Rather, this is an unapologetic rant about how our collective, co-created and shared spaces which we call our classrooms, deemed as sites of empowerment and learning, can be hierarchical, marginalising, devaluing and discriminatory. Our classrooms and the processes that lie within them can be as much a reflection of patriarchal social processes as any other space. While we may spend semesters after semesters analysing what rots the ‘outside’ spaces or the systems, in our case the health system, we do not do enough of looking inwards or ‘within’. By not doing so, we breed, sustain and even strengthen the privileges and capital of all kinds that are unequally bestowed upon some at the cost of many others.

The language we use, the jokes we crack, the assumptions we make, the groups we form, the questions we ask, the friends we make, or the readings we like – these are not random processes but are very much shaped by our caste, class, gender, religion, ‘ability’, geographical and other locations.

For instance, as a highly privileged ‘upper’ caste, ‘upper’ class, ‘able’ bodied, urban educated and cis-gendered woman, I find myself more vocal than I should be in my class. The reason I  can comprehend, articulate, write or even score better than many hard working friends of mine is because the rules of the game called institutionalized ‘higher’ education were decided by the elites of my kind with similar privileges, and that is why I am able to ‘perform’. Even if all the rules of the game in themselves are not discriminatory, unequal endowments mean that some people find it much easier than others to do well.

We need to begin asking the hard questions around these themes. We need to interrogate our spaces, our words, our privileges and also ourselves. Every time we exclusively use a ‘he’, we discriminate against persons with other gender identities. Every time we insist on speaking a ‘common’ language, be it the ‘official’ language or the so called ‘national’ one, we intimidate and oppress persons from vernacular backgrounds. Every time we express unhappiness about reservations or argue that it should be based only on ‘merit’ or suggest that caste-based discrimination is a ‘thing of the past’, we commit an atrocity. And then there are many subtle forms of discriminations too, or the forms that I am unaware of but contribute in their perpetuation, nevertheless.

Finally, I do not claim to have solutions. Because we all need to think about them and find them together. And for that, we need to have open, frank, and deep conversations. Lots and lots of them!

Jai Bhim, Kajubai!

Aashish and I recently visited SEARCH at Gadchiroli. There we met Kajubai, who showed us how healthcare can be democratised. We wrote a small article about her, which was published by I am posting the original here.

Democratizing health, one hand-wash at a time

When it was time to leave, we said namaste to Kajubai. She returned the greeting without much emotion. We then asked her, “aap kya bolte hain?” (how do you greet one another?). To this, she enthusiastically replied, “Jai Bhim!”

Kajubai turned 64 this 1st July. She remembers her age well, which is rare for older people in rural India. For the last 21 years, Kajubai Undirwade has been successfully saving babies from suffocation, bacterial infections and fevers. As some girls walked by her house, she proudly pointed out the one she resuscitated just after her birth. This girl is eighteen years old now.

Kajubai is not a doctor or a nurse. She did not even complete eight years of schooling. But in 1994, she trained to be an Arogyadoot (Health Ambassador) with the Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health (SEARCH), a pioneering rural health organisation set up in 1986 in Gadchiroli.

Photo 4

The basic features of SEARCH’s Home Based New-born Care (HBNC) model are well known and have been widely reported, in both scientific journals and popular media. SEARCH’s interventions helped bring the Infant Mortality Rate down from 76 deaths of babies aged less than one year per 1,000 live births in 1993-95 to 31 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2001-03. In control areas, this IMR remained essentially unchanged: IMR was 77.1 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 1993-95, and 75.8 in 2001-03 in control areas where Arogyadoots were not functioning. After the publication of these results, SEARCH’s Arogyadoots transitioned from a research to a service orientation, continuing to bring child mortality down.

Arogyadoots are trained to provide care for low birth-weight babies, babies with birth asphyxia and those with infectious diseases such as sepsis and pneumonia. According to the Million Deaths Study conducted by the Registrar General of India, these four causes together account for 78% of total neonatal mortality or the deaths of infants younger than 1 month. It is in the neonatal period that babies are the weakest, and most vulnerable to diseases and death. Often, these conditions occur together.

Using her simple and localised medical kit, Kajubai showed us how to detect these conditions and what to do about them. As soon as a baby is born, she checks if the baby is crying, breathing, and not gasping. If any of this doesn’t happen, she starts what the World Health Organisation calls bag-and-mask ventilation, after clearing the airways in the baby’s mouth, ears and nostrils. She makes sure that, following WHO guidelines, she starts this process within the first minute of the birth. Until she can see that the baby is breathing without difficulty, Kajubai continues to ventilate.

Kajubai took us to Laksh’s house, who was born on 1st June in a nearby sub-centre. After saying hello to the mother, she proceeded to wash her hands after removing her bangles. Every time she is seeing a baby, Kajubai removes her bangles, washes her hands thoroughly, and then holds them out, so as to air-dry them completely. She joked that if she is ever seen without her bangles on the village road, people ask her, “Who just delivered?”

“Information asymmetry” is the polite term used by economists to describe massive hierarchies in knowledge between providers and recipients that characterise fields such as medicine and law. These inequalities of information, along with an unresponsive health system in a society riddled with hierarchies of gender, caste, wealth, age and education present particularly insurmountable challenges for improvements in well-being in India.

Because of her demonstrations over and over again, and quiet insistence on following guidelines, the logic behind these simple methods has percolated into wider village consciousness. By following the exact same set of procedures for all babies in the village, Kajubai is also able to keep other forces of inequality, such as those of gender and caste, at bay.

For all babies, Kajubai has simple and easy to understand recommendations: wrapping the baby in a warm cloth, keeping it warm by giving the baby body heat through their parents’ bodies, adequate and exclusive breastfeeding, and avoiding infections by washing hands and maintaining hygienic conditions. These help improve health and survival of all babies, but are especially useful for babies who are born before the completion of 38 weeks of pregnancy, and those with birthweights less than 2.5 kilograms at birth. These are both common occurrences in India.

Another intervention that Kajubai excels at is giving Vitamin K injections to the babies in her village within the first hour of their birth. Her track-record with these inoculations, as well as of all the other Arogyadoots, is flawless. So much so that a new doctor in a nearby health centre brought his own daughter to Kajubai, just to make sure that everything was done as it should be done.

In all this, Arogyadoots like Kajubai and SEARCH have demystified a jargon-ridden profession while also using medical advances to save local lives. Kajubai’s skills and her explanations are remarkable, but even more remarkable is the way Arogyadoots have democratised the technical field of medicine.

In these interventions, and as a Dalit woman, Kajubai understood the importance of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s words to the Constituent Assembly: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality.” In her life and her work, Kajubai continues to defy precisely these disparities.

Jai Bhim to her!

Still I rise

This is my first blog post and I wanted it to be one of my favourite poems. As I’m trying to recover from a bad bout of illness ( about that in another post), I dedicate these beautiful lines from Maya Angelou to all those who are struggling for a healthier tomorrow. We shall over come!


You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may tread me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.


Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.


Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.


Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops.

Weakened by my soulful cries.


Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own back yard.


You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.


Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?


Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.