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Tsunami, fire, floods, Covid — the IAS officer who has led fight against disasters in Tamil Nadu

Dr. J Radhakrishnan worked in Nagapattinam, one of the worst-affected by the 2004 tsunami, and was health secretary during 2015 floods. He is now fighting ‘unseen enemy’ Covid.

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Chennai: With Tamil Nadu accounting for the highest Covid-19 cases in the country after Maharashtra, in early May, disaster management specialist Dr J. Radhakrishnan was appointed as the special nodal officer for the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) to head the fight against the pandemic.

Radhakrishnan, 53, is no stranger to disaster relief. In 2004, he was the district collector of one of the worst affected areas by the tsunami — Nagapattinam. His relief work was widely acclaimed internationally. Former US President Bill Clinton hailed his administrative skills for tsunami relief work in 2005.

Radhakrishnan also headed the disaster management team of the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) in India. Aside from being at the forefront during the tsunami, Radhakrishnan was also the health secretary during the 2015 Chennai floods and was also tasked with handling the aftermath of the 2004 Kumbakonam school fire, which killed 94 students.

As Tamil Nadu increasingly sees a daily spike in cases and the number in Chennai nears 20,000, Dr Radhakrishnan is once again on the frontline. However in his own words, this time he faces an “unseen enemy”. 

Also read: Why these 2 Tamil Nadu towns have made it to India’s 13 cities worst-hit by Covid 

‘Disasters shouldn’t be compared’ 

A lithe frame, over 6 feet tall with his hair neatly combed back and shirt smartly pressed and tucked in, one would not imagine that Radhakrishnan has been on the field since 5 am. He tells ThePrint his day starts anywhere between 5-5.30 am and ends at 11.00 pm.

He goes to the field twice a day — once in the morning and then in the afternoon. “I take a break in between going to the field as I don’t want to be a risk myself going from one containment zone to another. That is why I come back to the office, have a bath. Attend meetings and then go back to the field again.” 

Aside from being the special nodal officer for the GCC, Radhakrishnan is also the principal secretary of revenue administration, disaster management and mitigation.  

Asked about his lessons learnt while tackling previous disasters, he said: “To not compare disasters with each other, they all are unique.” He then went on to explain that extensive field work and inputs from experts always helps.

Speaking about the tsunami, Radhakrishnan explained it was something never heard of before. 

“I was the Thanjavur collector and was then given charge of Nagapattinam. The disaster management there was focused on reconstruction of the damage and recovery of life, while during the Chennai floods the dangers were to prevent the spread of any illnesses such as dengue or diarrhoea. However, coronavirus is an unseen enemy.”

He conceded dealing with previous disasters does give people the strength to deal with the situation and motivate others. However, he also cautioned that with Covid-19, one has to take each day as it comes.

Also read: More testing, new containment & quarantine strategies — how Tamil Nadu is tackling Covid spurt

Tackling Covid in Chennai 

A 1992-cadre IAS officer, Radhakrishnan has been given the task of being at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19.

To deal with the virus in Chennai, which is densely populated, he explained one needs “micro plans”. 

He keeps a close eye on the high volume of cases in areas such as Thiru Vi Ka Nagar, Tondiarpet, Royapuram and Teynampet.

“We are at a phase which is the middle phase,” he added.

He explained the GCC has employed specific people to conduct house-to-house thermal screening in the densely populated areas. And there is also compulsory testing, targeting eight areas, with over 3 lakh people. 

Apart from the routine testing, tracing and quarantining, Radhakrishnan is a huge believer of tying up with NGOs to take work to the grassroots level and help implement schemes. 

He also talked about free masks provided to over 26 lakh people, fever camps set up across the city and provision of immunity-boosting drugs such as zinc tablets and herbal siddha medicines. He stressed pertinently on the attempt to identify and checking up the 1.5 lakh elderly people, who take medicines from the GCC dispensary. “Our main aim is to cocoon them from the virus,” he said.

Asked about the allegation that Chennai began its efforts late to contain Covid-19, he said it is highly inadvisable to do a concurrent analysis as it only demotivates the staff, especially the frontline workers.

While talking about the impact of the Koyambedu cluster, Radhakrishnan said it is important to not get fixated on one event, but to realise any place where more than 20 people gather, people need to adopt a health-seeking behaviour.  

“Everyone must wear masks at all times, especially during extremely crucial moments and not remove them while talking. Maintain hygiene standards and adequate distance at all times,” he added.

He further underscored there is no room for complacency in dealing with Covid-19. “There is a stubbornness to the disease,” he added.

Talking about a potential vaccine to the disease, the IAS officer said it is best left on medical practitioners and epidemiologists. 

Although he is professionally an administrator, Radhakrishnan is a qualified veterinarian too and also has a postgraduate degree in genetics. However, he believed his duty was to “tackle the disease headlong and adopt preventive methods”.

Also read: Once a bustling wholesale market, Chennai’s Koyambedu is now a deserted Covid hotspot

Implementing disaster management tactics 

Radhakrishnan was known to be a trusted officer of late CM of Tamil Nadu J. Jayalaithaa and it was she who appointed him as the collector of Nagapattinam when the tsunami struck. 

Talking about the tsunami, Radhakrishnan mentioned one thing in particular extremely passionately — the resilience of the people of Nagapattinam. “I still keep going to that beautiful place, there is so much learning each time I go back.” 

Recollecting all the major lessons he has learnt on the ground dealing with calamities, Radhakrishnan listed down a few of them. He noted, first is to have NGO-government coordination, then people’s participation and to understand the power of people’s resilience. And finally, to do “team-work, result-oriented work and common-sense work”.

Also read: Delhi to Chennai, wholesale vegetable mandis are turning into festering Covid hotspots


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