An ongoing health survey by the Kerala government is actually designed and steered by the Canada-based Population Health Research Institute, according to emails and letters exchanged by health officials and researchers involved in the project. Ironically, the Left Democratic Front government in the state, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), had strongly criticised the state’s previous Congress-led United Democratic Front government for partnering with the PHRI for an almost identical project, ultimately forcing them to shelve it. When media reports first broke news that the LDF had relaunched a similar project, the state government claimed that it was not sharing any data with PHRI. But the emails and letters, accessed by The Caravan, reveal that the government appears to have been lying.
The emails were exchanged by senior officials from the Kerala government, PHRI and other medical institutes involved in the project. The individuals include Rajeev Sadanandan, a top health bureaucrat who served under both LDF and UDF governments; Salim Yusuf, a professor at the McMaster University in Canada who heads the PHRI; K Vijaykumar, a professor at the Government Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram; and KR Thankappan, an emeritus professor at the Achutha Menon Centre for Health Science Studies, also in Thiruvananthapuram. Their communication, which was brought to The Caravan by a whistleblower, discloses the deliberations behind key decisions such as granting PHRI the access to data, addressing the media and political scrutiny over the project, and reveals the massive financial investment into the project.
Most pertinently, the communications reveal that Pinarayi Vijayan’s LDF government did little apart from rebrand and reintroduce the UDF’s Kerala Health Observatory and Baseline Survey, or KHOBS of 2013. In December 2018, two years after coming to power, the LDF government announced the launch of its survey called the Kerala Information of Residents - Aarogyam Network, or KIRAN. But within weeks of the new government coming to power, Vijayakumar had initiated the discussion to revive the previous government’s project. Vijayakumar is also a secretary of a non-profit called Health Action by People, which was involved in both surveys, sought to bring back the project.
Under the UDF government, Sadanandan had served as the principal secretary in the health department when the KHOBS project was underway. He was deputed to the central government in 2013 after KHOBS was shelved, and returned to the state government as the additional chief secretary in the health department in May 2016. On 3 June that year, Vijaykumar wrote to Sumathy Rangarajan, a programme coordinator with PHRI, “Mr rajeev sadanandan took charge. Coast is clear. Shall v plan a go?”