Keshav Desiraju (1955-2021) was much more than a bureaucrat and gentleman

In a personal tribute Dr Soumitra Pathare, director of CMHLP writes about his 10-year friendship with Desiraju who passed away on Sunday 'without a fuss'. His funeral is being held in Chennai today

Photo credit: Jo Chopra-McGowan
Photo credit: Jo Chopra-McGowan
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Soumitra Pathare

Keshav Desiraju (b: 11 May 1955 d: 5 September 2021) was a 1978 batch IAS officer of UP/Uttarakhand cadre. He served in various positions but is most well known and recognized for his tenure as the Health Secretary to the Union Government in 2013-14.

Mr Desiraju was a bachelor and leaves behind two older sisters and a brother. He had a Masters in Economics from Cambridge University and another Masters in Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

This is less of an obituary and more a eulogy. An objective assessment of his tenure as the Health Secretary will have to wait for some time and by a more impartial commentator than myself. However, irrespective of the judgement of history, the outpouring of grief by India’s health sector on social and print media as news of his death trickled in, is testimony to the fact that he left an indelible imprint on public health in the country.

Jo Chopra-McGowan of Latika Roy Foundation wrote on the day he was appointed Health Secretary in 2013: “We got lucky yesterday. And by 'we', I mean the country. Keshav Desiraju has been appointed Health Secretary, Government of India. I've heard him described as a visionary, a person of impeccable honesty and total integrity, a man of action and a dedicated public servant. All true. Add sense of humour, sense of the absurd, political acumen, and a dazzling ability to articulate complex ideas. And don't forget courtesy and kindness. The country got lucky yesterday. We need more days like this.”

All those who knew Mr Desiraju well, would attest that Jo captured the essence of the man in this paragraph. Years of mismanagement has meant India’s health professionals have a justifiable disdain for India’s health bureaucrats. However, he brought that elusive something to the health sector – hope of good governance. The angry articles on his abrupt and unceremonious transfer from the Health Ministry in 2014 after just 11 months in post, for his unwillingness to compromise on public health issues, is another example of the health sector’s high regard for him.

Mr Desiraju believed public service was a calling rather than a career and in this, he was an anachronism, a throwback to a more idealistic time in India’s short history as an independent nation.

After retirement from the IAS in 2015, he co-edited a book on medical corruption in India and the definitive biography of M S Subbulakshmi a few months ago. He continued to remain involved with the health sector and served as a Trustee and Board member of many health NGOs particularly in the mental health sector.

Mr Desiraju always said he would like to be remembered for having led the drafting of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017. A 2018 editorial in the respected British Journal of Psychiatry had this to say about the Act: “The drafters of India's new legislation have demonstrated wisdom and vision in articulating a legally binding right to such care despite the inevitable challenges and complexities of such a bold move” and exhorted “the rest of the world should watch, listen and learn.”

He was also instrumental in getting the World Health Organization (WHO) to pass a special resolution on mental health which directly led to the development of WHO’s Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013.

I got to know Keshav in 2010 due to my involvement in the drafting of the Mental Healthcare Act. We started out warily, sizing each other up, to finally becoming ‘co-conspirators’ in drafting a progressive legislation and ultimately became close friends.

It is (I really can’t bring myself to say ‘was’) an unusual friendship as we have so little in common. He grew up in South Bombay (as it was then called) and went to Cathedral & John Connon school. I grew up on the outskirts of Mumbai and attended a non-descript convent school. He had spent nights in the Rashtrapati Bhavan (when his grandfather was the President of India) while I grew up in a one-bedroom flat in 1970s Mumbai. He had studied at Cambridge and Harvard, while I can only claim to call Seth G S Medical College, Mumbai as my alma-mater.

He was a connoisseur of Carnatic music and would not miss the ‘season’ in Chennai even if you offered him a million dollars; I on the other hand, am moved by the Sounds of Silence. He collected Raja Ravi Verma lithographs which are way beyond my aesthetic capabilities. He was the master of the deadpan look, but I wear my emotions on my face. He had an impish giggle and I tend to guffaw. He was the genteel pedigreed, to the manor born while I am the quintessential mongrel who proudly carries scars of many a bloody street-fight.

During our time working together on the Act, I would berate him for his timidity, and he would respond calling me a chancer. I think there was much merit in both these accusations. We were however united in our desire to do something substantial for mental health. He was acutely aware of his privilege and the need to give back to society. He was a good listener and excelled at reading the pauses between sentences. It was only 10 years of friendship, but it feels like he was always a part of my life. He would unfailingly call to wish me on my wedding anniversary each year which is a day after his birthday, and I would unfailingly wish him a belated happy birthday!

I sit here at my desk in Pune penning this piece, as his funeral takes place 1000 miles away in Chennai this morning. I cannot bring myself to go and see him for “one last time”. It is symptomatic of the self-effacing life he lived, to go without a fuss on a Sunday morning, his grandfather’s birth anniversary. In some odd way, I think the circle is complete.

While the health sector mourns the loss of an indefatigable public health champion, I have a more pressing problem to deal with. Who will remind me to wish Gita* (a common friend) on her birthday, in the coming years?

Farewell my dear friend. Do not go gentle into the good night.

(Dr Soumitra Pathare is director of Centre For Mental Health Law and Policy)

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