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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Keshav Desiraju (1955-2021): ‘New Mental Health Act was his baby… country’s psychiatrists owe a lot to him’

A 1978-batch IAS officer from Uttarakhand cadre, Desiraju was the grandson of former President Dr S Radhakrishnan and served as the health secretary between January 2013 and February 2014.

Written by Kaunain Sheriff M | New Delhi |
September 6, 2021 3:51:59 am
Keshav Desiraju

Former Health Secretary Keshav Desiraju, who was actively involved in critical issues on public health — specifically mental health — passed away on Sunday. He was 66.

A 1978-batch IAS officer from Uttarakhand cadre, Desiraju was the grandson of former President Dr S Radhakrishnan and served as the health secretary between January 2013 and February 2014.

His tenure as the health secretary was cut short by the Manmohan Singh government, and he was transferred as Secretary to the Consumer Affairs, Food, and Public Distribution Ministry.

Desiraju, who also served as the special secretary and additional secretary at the health ministry, was known for his integrity and honesty.

However, it is his contribution to mental health that remains his most significant achievement.

Dr P Satish Chandra, the former director and vice-chancellor of premier mental health institute NIMHANS, worked very closely with Desiraju. He said the IAS officer played an instrumental role in taking mental health and neurosciences to higher levels — specifically the institute being designated as an institute of national importance by Parliament.

“I have yet to come across a simple, humble, sincere, and hardworking secretary of that nature in my life. He was honest to the core and very hard working. That speaks volumes. That is S Radhakrishnan’s blood, I am sure,” Chandra said.

“Desiraju had a great role in two areas of mental health in India. One of the major roles was in the NIMHANS. As a premier institute of mental health and neurosciences, he was instrumental in getting NIMHANS, the institute of national importance. Of course, the ministry plays an important and instrumental role, but from the bureaucracy point of view, he has guided us and taken us through the whole event of getting us the institute of national importance, which took almost two years. I owe a lot of gratitude to his contribution to NIMHANS,” he said.

Chandra said the landmark Mental Health Act, 2017 passed by Parliament was personally and emotionally very important to Desiraju.

“The Mental Health Act was a very old legislation enacted in the latter part of the 1800s. That law was revised in the form of the new Mental Health Act and it has changed how we look at the patients. For the new law to come, Desiraju went through the whole aspect individually. In fact, he guided the whole way with the psychiatrists. The Mental Health Act was actually… his baby. He worked very hard for that. I have seen myself, on a Sunday when I had gone to the ministry, sitting in his room dictating the provisions of the Act. The psychiatrists of this country owe a lot to him for this important achievement,” Chandra said.

Desiraju’s transfer had stirred controversy after many eminent personalities had raised concerns over the decision, including Infosys founder N R Narayana Murthy and Biocon chairman and managing director Kiran Mazumdar Shaw. “The transfer is in violation of the orders of the Hon’ble Supreme Court…wherein it was directed that in the interests of good governance, tenures of senior ranking officials be made for two years…It is therefore, unfortunate that a capable and competent officer has been summarily removed and without even following any procedure,” a letter to then PM Singh had stated.

However, the landmark Mental Health Act was not passed during Desiraju’s tenure. “I am sure he would have got it passed at that time, unfortunate that he was transferred in a very rapid way for various other reasons,” Chandra said.

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