On February 17, 2019, when the government of Tamil Nadu appointed Dr Beela Rajesh as the state's Health secretary, in a major reshuffle of IAS officers, little did she know that she would encounter more challenges in a year than many of her predecessors probably saw in their entire term. First, there were allegations of infected blood causing nine maternal deaths in the state, creating outrage amongst the public. Then in April 2019, she was forced to confront doctors who failed to record rape after examining the body of a deceased Adivasi girl in Dharmapuri district. This was followed by strikes from doctors and nurses, which brought the state's medical machinery to its knees.
"These are big challenges for an IAS officer who has just come to the post," says a senior journalist from Chennai, who has been tracking the Health Department for many years. "But she handled it with an iron fist. An inquiry was launched into the maternal deaths, cases were filed against the doctors who failed to record rape, and medical practitioners who failed to report to duty were transferred. She made it clear that breach of protocol is not okay," adds the journalist.
And today, this bureaucrat is facing a battle bigger than everything the last year has thrown at her.
Beelaâ€™s career and life
To many in the state, Dr Beelaâ€™s appointment to the post of Health Secretary came as a surprise. Few had heard of her before this posting, for she had never managed a portfolio this crucial.
A doctor by qualification, Dr Beela Rajesh completed her MBBS from Madras Medical College (MMC). She got married to Rajesh Das, who is an IPS officer from the Odisha batch, in 1992. Rajesh Das is currently serving as an Additional Director General of Police in Tamil Nadu.
And the family's influence doesn't end there. Dr Beela's mother, Rani Venkatesan, a native of Nagercoil, was a senior Congress leader and a former MLA. Her father, SN Venkatesan meanwhile, is a retired Director General of Police.
She cleared her civil services exam in 1997 and was initially posted in Bihar and later Jharkhand, before getting a transfer to Tamil Nadu.
In the state, she has held the posts of Sub-Collector of Chengalpattu; Commissioner of Fisheries; and Commissioner for Town and Country Planning. Before becoming the Principal Secretary of Health, her last post was Commissioner for Indian Medicine and Homeopathy.
"She has never had to handle the media or such a large battalion of officers under her. And this sometimes reflects in her impatient attitude towards any questions about her decisions or work during this pandemic," alleges a senior television journalist, putting forth a view that several others who spoke to TNM shared.
Communicating about the pandemic
This journalist we spoke to also believes that Dr Beela has communicated with the media only on a limited basis.
"Crucial information about the need for an increase in the number of tests conducted, or about the source of infection of those who had not travelled abroad, or not come in contact with patients, is also not revealed. While she is ready to state the obvious, she tends to evade any questions that even get slightly uncomfortable," he adds.
A source in the Chief Minister's office admits that there is a gap in communication between departments. "Even in the case of the Tablighi Jamaat, Intelligence and Health failed to coordinate. This led to an unnecessary delay in tracing those who attended the conference," he says.
He, however, differs with the journalists and says that as far as communicating goes, Dr Beela has done her job ably.
"At this point it is more about execution of plans and strategy than about offering constant information and communication,â€ť says the source. "Her job is to give the statistics and she is doing that. I agree that she does not come across as accessible but that is just her nature. She is known to be curt and limited within bureaucratic circles, even to those that she has to report to," he says.
In fact sources tell TNM that when the number of COVID-19 cases began to increase in March, it was a conscious decision to bring the Health Secretary to the forefront. Initially, Health Minister C Vijayabaskar was briefing the media on the COVID-19 updates in the state.
"When it comes to daily news and press conferences it didn't make sense to have a party person in the forefront. You don't need a politician to give the bad news," he hints. "The Chief Minister and the Cabinet is satisfied with her actions," he adds.
Moreover, many in the government believe that Beelaâ€™s medical background ensured that she understood the nuances and her press meets were never vacuous.
Bureaucrats TNM spoke to also largely agree that having a doctor at the helm of affairs is appreciable.
"As someone who understands the subject, Dr Beela Rajesh, will have a firm grasp over what is happening," says a retired bureaucrat. "Anybody else in that position will be taken for a ride by other officials. But the need of the hour is for other departments and Revenue and Disaster to assert their authority and be part of these press conferences to detail what measures are being taken. There will be immense pressure on the Health Department but this is the time for them to step up," he adds.
An official from the department told TNM, "We follow madam's orders. There is no question of doing it any other way."
According to a former bureaucrat who spoke to TNM under the condition of anonymity, this has proven to be difficult for other department officials working with her.
"As an administrator, Dr Beela Rajesh is very efficient, no doubt. Any issue that comes to her notice is immediately taken care of. However her colleagues have mentioned that they find the atmosphere difficult to work in as the Secretary is not as approachable as her predecessors," says the retired IAS officer.
A senior Tamil journalist points out that while on paper, she may have handled whatever crisis has presented itself till now efficiently, those on ground are of a different view.
"When nurses protested at the Directorate Of Medical And Rural Health Services in September last year, they closed all bathrooms in the building, to make sure they were in discomfort and stop protests. Similarly even when doctors were protesting, no effort was made to have a discussion with them," he says. "Dissent is seen as disobedience," he adds.
But in addition to the increased workload, Dr Beela Rajesh has had to endure personal attacks online, in the midst of a pandemic.
From nasty rumours about her personal life to statements about her clothes, the Health Secretary has been subjected to misogyny just like many other women in the public space.
"When she first came she was not very confident and couldn't really face the media. But now you can see that she can hold her own when tough questions are posed," says a senior journalist, "She has acted differently from her predecessors. We don't know yet if this will lead to good or bad results. But for now we will have to wait and see."