In the passing of Keshav Desiraju, India has lost a public health icon

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Updated: September 06, 2021 9:16 PM

A bachelor all his life with simple habits, deep thinking, he was always articulate with his well-structured thoughts and carefully analysed views.

Keshav DesirajuActive and seemingly in good health, till the very end, Desiraju, 66, suffered a cardiac arrest on Sunday. (Photo source:Twitter/@DesirajuKeshav)

India lost Keshav Desiraju on a day the country was celebrating his grandfather and former president of India Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday – September 5th , a day every child in India calls his teachers’ day.

Active and seemingly in good health, till the very end, Desiraju, 66, suffered a cardiac arrest on Sunday. A bachelor all his life with simple habits, deep thinking, he was always articulate with his well-structured thoughts and carefully analysed views. He always let the weight of truth prevail and was a healthcare reporter’s delight and all through his life remained much more than his shortest designation to the high office he held as the former health secretary of India.

He all along continued to engage in matters of public health and was a strong advocate of the need for India to build a dedicated healthcare cadre that went beyond community health workers like the Asha (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers and ANMs (Auxiliary Nurse Midwife) and incentivised them towards more impactful participation. Numbers did not matter to him, if they did not explain what they all added up to? Therefore, number of primary healthcare centres never mattered to Desiraju. His focus was always on functioning was the infrastructure at the centres – how many doctors and nurses were housed there? Were all the essential medicines available? Or whether the vehicle at the centre had the enough fuel?

He also went beyond COVID and last year this time, he began raising serious concern on how we are going to handle the collateral damage of COVID-19 on other health ailment – a problem we will need to grapple with now as we get to take stock of where we stand on chronic ailments, tracking those that have had a break in the treatment for tuberculosis – an ailment that kills one person every minute in the country. Or the children, who have had to miss out on their basic immunisation doses.

Desiraju, was a doyen among civil servants. An IAS officer of the 1978 batch of the Uttarakhand cadre, he held a Masters degree in economics from the University of Cambridge and also a Masters in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

There is not one area in public health that he has not looked at or analysed or played a role in its improvement though Desiraju is credited for his contribution to the issue of mental health. Today, if India has a ‘right to mental health’, it certainly owes a great deal to the work done in this space by Desiraju.

Calling him an absolutely fine gentleman who stood by his values, K Sujatha Rao, the former union health secretary and one with whom Desiraju had worked closely, says, “Keshav was a person with strong conviction and as additional secretary back then, I relied a lot on him and was a source of strength to me. He was someone I could implicitly trust.” Rao remembers his persistence and the ability to doggedly pursue prickly problems till solutions were found. “Look at the way he persisted with a topic like mental health which at one stage was a low priority in the ministry,” she says.

But then, Desiraju’s interests stretched well beyond health too. Jairam Ramesh in his tweet days: “my dear, dear friend for 57 years, Keshav Desiraju, a most outstanding civil servant has just passed away. What a tragic irony that he left us on the day the country marks the birthday of his grandfather. Keshav has written the definitive biography of M S Subbulaksmi.”

He was working on a book on Tyagaraja, the composer of Carnatic music and he was busy learning Telugu. Desiraju’s passing is a huge loss and he will be dearly missed by all.

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