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Questions on health transfer

New Delhi, Feb. 12: Sections of India’s public health community have expressed outrage at the government’s decision to transfer India’s top health bureaucrat amid speculation that he had questioned the nomination of a tainted doctor to the country’s apex medical regulator.

The government yesterday transferred the Union health secretary Keshav Desiraju, a 1978-batch IAS officer, to the consumer affairs ministry in what is being interpreted in some health circles as an abrupt and unjustified transfer.

Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad was today quoted by the Press Trust of India as saying: “These are administrative things... officers’ and ministers’ portfolios change — it is a regular affair.”

But sections of medics and public health experts suspect Desiraju was moved because he had questioned Gujarat’s nomination of an Ahmedabad-based doctor, Ketan Desai, to the Medical Council of India, citing pending criminal cases against him.

The MCI, a regulatory body for the medical profession, routinely inspects medical colleges across India to ensure they meet the prescribed criteria for infrastructure, hospital beds, and teaching faculty required for quality education.

The CBI had in April 2010 arrested Desai — then the MCI president — for allegedly seeking a bribe from a medical college. In October that year, the MCI had suspended Desai’s right to practise medicine alleging professional misconduct.

But Gujarat last year nominated Desai for membership to a freshly constituted MCI that would take over in December 2013, two doctors, one of whom is a member of the MCI, told The Telegraph. The doctors suspect Desiraju had questioned the nomination which, they believe, under standard operating protocols would have required the approval of the Union health ministry.

“Many of us are outraged, Desiraju’s transfer is extremely unfortunate,” said a senior doctor. “He is someone with great intellect and integrity, and we were looking forward to see him continue his work in health.”

Desiraju, an alumnus of the Universities of Bombay, Cambridge and Harvard, was additional secretary in the health ministry before he took over as the secretary and has played a key role in steering India’s health programmes.

“He has about two years to go, and his presence in the (health) ministry would have ensured continuity in guidance for health programmes --- we believe this has something to do with the MCI,” the doctor told this newspaper.

A member of the MCI said a set of documents on Desai had been circulated to the MCI’s ethics sub-committee that would be expected to examine the documents and determine whether it would be appropriate to return Desai’s medical registration.

“We haven’t had time to read them yet,” a sub-committee member said. “The newly constituted MCI took over only in December 2013, we’ve had two meetings where we looked at other pending matters. The next meeting is on February 21.”

Desai is currently out on bail and was unavailable for comment today. A senior CBI officer said tonight the case against Desai is under trial and he has also been chargesheeted in other cases in Lucknow.

“I’m shocked to hear about the transfer, but not surprised,” said Kunal Saha, a non-resident Indian physician who is the president of a patients’ interest group named People for Better Treatment and has been campaigning against Desai through courts and the health ministry.

Saha had last year filed a petition saying that Desai, despite MCI’s suspension of his medical registration, “managed to win the only medical seat” in the Gujarat University Senate reserved for registered medical graduates. The petition will be heard in Gujarat High Court tomorrow.

Last November, Saha had written to the health ministry urging that Desai should not be eligible to become a member of MCI to represent doctors until he has been exonerated of all charges and the suspension of his medical licence has been reversed by the MCI.