Keshav Desiraju transfer: When right bureaucrats are wronged

Government actions that appear to defend corrupt practices and commercial interests, can only bring down public institutions

By Amit Sengupta
Published: Saturday 15 February 2014

Government actions that appear to defend corrupt practices and commercial interests, can only bring down public institutions

Amit Sengupta There has been widespread outrage over the removal of Keshav Desiraju from the post of secretary in the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Of particular concern is the summary and precipitate manner in which his transfer from the ministry was effected, barely 11 months after being appointed secretary.
Desiraju is known as one of the most upright officers—a person who believes in accountability of the government health system. He was engaged in improving the efficiency of his own department. After the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan sent out a press release raising concerns about Desiraju's removal, a senior public health researcher wrote back, saying: "I think it is rarely that I have seen a person of such integrity in a position such as he held".

It is inconceivable that this is indeed a “routine affair” (as the health minister claimed), given the precipitate manner of the bureaucrat's removal. It is a matter of public concern that a capable officer like Desiraju was shunted out in a hurry.

Desiraju's transfer is a violation of the Supreme Court order last year to insulate bureaucrats from political pressure and ensure fixed tenure for officers. Of even greater concern are media reports that Desiraju’s transfer is linked to some of his decisions. Key among these, as reported in sections of the media, is his unwillingness to accept Ketan Desai as a key functionary of the Medical Council of India (MCI).

While serving as the chairperson of MCI, he was arrested by CBI on April 22, 2010 on charges of holding disproportionate assets and for allegedly receiving a Rs 2 crore bribe to give recognition to a private medical college based in Patiala. MCI had also suspended Desai’s licence to practice medicine.

Desai, media reports suggest, is presently out on bail. In October, 2013, the Gujarat University nominated him as a member of the MCI and there have been speculations that he would again offer himself for the post of chairperson of MCI. It may be recalled that after Desai’s arrest, in May 2010, MCI was superseded by a Board of Governors whose term expired on May 14, 2013. After passage of the Medical Council (Amendment) Bill in 2013, MCI is being constituted afresh. Reports suggest that despite pressures and after having consulted CBI Desiraju did not want to sanction the re-entry of Desai into MCI.

It has also been reported in a section of the media that there were other differences between Desiraju and the government. It is reported that he was charged of being ‘inflexible’ in his reluctance to give licence to a foreign manufacturer of stents, which are devices used in procedures such as angioplasty for heart patients.
It is a matter of grave concern if these indeed are the actual reasons behind Desiraju’s removal. The country’s public health system, widely seen as one of the poorest performing in the world, has been brought to this pass as a result of systematic and callous neglect of public institutions. Actions such as in the present instance, that appear to defend corrupt practices and commercial interests, can only make things worse. The government of India should clarify why a capable officer was asked to relinquish charge in such an unsavoury manner. The people of the country have a right to know whose interests the government of the day seeks to preserve.
Amit Sengupta is member of the national co-ordination committee of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan


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