Keshav Desiraju, India’s former health secretary who made a lasting contribution to public health in India, breathed his last on September 5. He died from ‘acute coronary syndrome’. He inherited the scholarly legacy of his grandfather, India’s much-admired second President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and contributed at least two very important books which reflected the diversity of his interests.
He will be remembered for many sterling qualities, as is already evident from the richness of tributes pouring in, including by some of those who did not share his views and vision.
Among other things, he is remembered for his great integrity combined with scholarship and understanding, an ability to inspire team effort for difficult tasks and have the patience to pursue noble ideas with firm yet polite determination in the middle of prolonged and strong opposition from not-so-noble persons and interests, a rare combination anywhere but increasingly so in Indian bureaucracy.
Very admirable while these qualities are, in the increasingly sinister jungle of Indian governance systems, this must have taken its toll in terms of high levels of tensions and frustrations. This was all too evident in 2014 in the last weeks of the UPA government, when his stand against corrupt deals of the medical establishment, the big pharma lobby and probably also the powerful tobacco lobby led to his removal from the post of health secretary after just 11 months, leading to outrage in public health circles with many protests being voiced by the likes of Amartya Sen and Aruna Roy.
With a Master’s degree in Economics from Cambridge and Master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard, Keshav Desiraju had more promising and scholarly options open to him, and the only reason that must have brought him to administrative services was to serve in a way that would have higher public welfare outreach with more immediacy. He served very well in the Central Government as well as state governments of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, the last post of his distinguished career being as Secretary in the Ministry of Consumer Affairs.
He was known to be very encouraging towards several good initiatives, and those who benefited from this well-informed encouragement and guidance have already spoken with deep emotion and feeling regarding how they will miss a true friend and mentor.
In particular he will be remembered a lot for his contribution to public health initiatives, most importantly for his invaluable contributions to mental health, a highly neglected area of public health in India which benefited much from his well-informed and careful attention.
In fact with his combination of great integrity, goodwill, scholarship and understanding, now after retirement from buraucracy was the time when he would have made even greater contributions in his areas of expertise. This was not to be, however, and tragically he has left us at the age of only 66.
He will remembered also for his widely admired book –titled Of Gifted Voice—on the great singer M.S. Subbulakshmi, reflecting his diverse interests and scholarship. With two co-editors, he edited a very valuable book on the health scene of India—one of its kind—whose title tells all—‘ Healers or Predators—Healthcare Corruption in India’.
The absence of Keshav Desiraju will be greatly missed in a country needs which increasingly needs the brilliant scholarship, great integrity , quiet courage and deep commitment which defined his personality and work.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author.