Remembering Keshav Desiraju, the Crusader Behind Mental Health Act 2017

Civility, brilliance and anonymity are attributes for which Keshav has been known in the top bureaucracy and amidst his expanding circle of friends.

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Some civil servants are known for the posts they occupied, some for impacting lives. Very few are remembered for both. Keshav Desiraju was one such person. Keshav, whose sudden demise is being widely mourned, belonged to a category of officers that is rapidly depleting. Civility, brilliance and anonymity are attributes for which Keshav has been known in the top bureaucracy and amidst his expanding circle of friends.

Being educated at Bombay and Cambridge (and much later at Harvard) with an impressive record, Keshav’s entry into the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is indicative of how public service was once valued by talented youngsters who had other options. But importantly, in this case, it was Keshav who added substantial value to whatever he was called upon to perform during his stints in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and in the Union government. He observed, assimilated and grew.

Four characteristics define Keshav and make him stand apart. First was his inclusivity and commitment to the values of equality and a sense of fairness that endeared him to all those he interacted with. Power and authority sat lightly on his shoulders as he treated the peon who opened his door with the same sense of warmth as his IAS colleagues. He was not overawed by the powerful and had quiet courage to stand by his values that he believed in, regardless of the consequences. In a hierarchically-ridden system of the IAS, such traits are not common.

Second, his dogged pursuit of whatever he believed to be valuable and impactful for public purpose. Be it setting the record straight on the life and contribution of M.S. Subbulakshmi in the world of Carnatic music or drafting and finalising The Mental Health Care Bill, 2013.

Mental health has never been a priority in the corridors of Nirman Bhawan despite the fact that over 7% of the population needs mental healthcare services. IAS officers tend to pursue those areas that are of immediate political interest. Mental health was not one of those. Yet it found a champion in Keshav who took hold of the matter as additional secretary in 2010 and pursued it as health secretary in 2013. Making access to mental health services an individual right is a radical step forward.

Third, his grasp of the manner in which the system functions led him to seek help and guidance from experts and organisations outside the fold of government. In reaching out to the larger constituency of civil society and other stakeholders into policymaking, he not only lent richness to the substantive aspects of policy but also imparted a sense of ownership to the stakeholders.

For example, in following such a process in the formulation of the bill on mental healthcare, he has created and left behind a committed constituency of persons who will continue to work for the realisation of the objectives of the Act (2017) by holding the government accountable.

And finally, the fourth, was his helpful nature and standing by those who have been wronged by the system. Government systems are impersonal and rule-bound. Unlike before, today IAS officers are increasingly becoming difficult to access. In such an environment, this quality of accessibility and willingness to help, emerge as a stellar one. Instances like his opposition to the extension of service in the IAS of an influential officer seeking to change the date of birth before retirement, as a joint secretary in the personnel department, or extending support to an official whose son was murdered, by the scion of a powerful politician, when he was in the education ministry are legion.

Taken in isolation, these may not appear to be of much significance, but collectively, such attitudes, consistent and reasoned decisions make a huge difference to the lives of individuals harassed by the web of rules and procedures.

In the 1980s, Keshav worked on the faculty of LBS National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, where he expanded the scope of training with the involvement of NGOs and distinguished men and women in the world of culture. As a deputy director, he remembered the name of virtually every probationer that won him their abiding fondness and friendship.

Keshav was a fine writer. The book that he co-edited with two noted medical practitioners titled Healers or Predators? Healthcare Corruption In India, with a foreword by Amartya Sen, is a comprehensive and nuanced account of this important subject.

But his definitive work on M.S. Subbulakshmi titled Of Gifted Voice: The Life and Art of M.S. Subbulakshmi is remarkable for a variety of reasons, showing Keshav’s capacity for painstaking research and his ability to draw a balanced but glowing picture of M.S., the phenomenon. No wonder the book has been acclaimed, both at the critical and popular levels.

The gentle scholar-administrator passed away when he was still brimming with ideas about what to do next. His erudition, sense of humour and empathy that he brought to bear upon everything he did, official or personal, will be sorely missed.

K. Sujatha Rao is a former Union health secretary. Amitabha Bhattacharya is a retired member of the IAS. He has also served in the private sector and the UN.