New Delhi: This was some time in 2012-13. Upon entering the office of Additional Secretary Rajiv Takru in the ministry of health just after lunch, I was greeted by the unfamiliar bars of Carnatic music. Seated inside were the officer and Keshav Desiraju, then a special secretary in the ministry — which meant that he was, unless something exceptional happened, on his way to becoming the Union Health Secretary.
That afternoon with “Shivoham shivoham” playing in the background, I received a crash course in Carnatic music, of which I know nothing. But between them, the two IAS officers ensured that I did search for the song again later on and played it a few times.
That one of them — Desiraju — went on to author a book on one of the doyens of that school of music, was in some ways, foretold. His book on M.S. Subbulakshmi, “Gifted Voice: The Life and Art of M.S. Subbulakshmi” was released earlier this year. I had last met him virtually in April this year during a discussion on Covid.
A soft-spoken gentleman with perfect diction and a passion for things he believed in, Desiraju was one of the first officers I befriended when I first began the ministry of health beat over 10 years ago. He was an additional secretary then, and one of the few very approachable ones — it was many years later that I came to know about his illustrious lineage.
Desiraju was Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s grandson. He was passionate about tobacco control — it was during his stint as additional secretary that the gutkha and other chewable products containing tobacco, were banned. The bans were instituted by states but it was Desiraju’s letter that set the ball rolling.
The Mental Healthcare Bill 2012 was his baby. Ministry lore has it that he had personally drafted many parts of the Bill. It had the pathbreaking provision of advance directive that allowed a person to lay down while he is still of sound mind, how they should or should not be treated in case they develop a mental illness. The Bill went on to become the Mental Healthcare Act 2017.
Soon after the Bill had been cleared by cabinet, Desiraju told The Lancet: “Mental health institutions in the government sector are depressing places which are starved of resources—both human and financial. The bill will provide an enabling structure for the government to provide more resources.”
His stint in the ministry of health was cut short — there were multiple theories about the reasons for his being shunted to the consumer affairs ministry including how he may have paid the price of being on the wrong side of the tobacco lobby or of former MCI chief Ketan Desai in his bid to clean up the MCI mess. There were even reports about how he was shunted out because he had “caused embarrassment” to the then health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad.
Desiraju maintained a dignified public silence through all of this, as is typical of IAS officers. But he retained his passion for mental health post-retirement too, addressing various fora as an advocate. Articulate and erudite, Desiraju was also keenly interested in how to control corruption in healthcare. He had co-written a book with senior doctors Dr Samiran Nundy and Dr Sanjay Nagral called “Healers or Predators”?
Never afraid to speak his mind, Desiraju’s signature has been a part of many open letters to the government of the day on various issues.
Rest in Peace, Sir.
(Edited by Paramita Ghosh)
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