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Activists question secretary’s transfer

New Delhi, Feb. 13: Several health groups today asked the Centre to explain the abrupt transfer of the Union health secretary, calling it a violation of the spirit of a Supreme Court ruling last year that bureaucrats should be insulated from political pulls and pressures.

Health secretary Keshav Desiraju, a 1978 batch IAS officer, was transferred on Tuesday to the ministry of consumer affairs in a move that sections of health organisations and patient-interest groups have described as “unseemly” and “ominous”.

The Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA), a nationwide network of public health organisations, has called on the government to clarify why Desiraju had been asked to relinquish charge in such an “unseemly way”.

Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad had yesterday described his transfer as a “regular affair”, saying the portfolios of both bureaucrats and ministers can change routinely.

But, as reported today in The Telegraph, sections of doctors and public health experts suspect that Desiraju has been moved because he had questioned Gujarat’s nomination of a tainted doctor, Ahmedabad-based Ketan Desai, to the Medical Council of India (MCI). The MCI, a regulatory body, routinely inspects medical colleges across the country to determine that they meet all quality standards for infrastructure, hospital beds and faculty.

Desai was arrested by the CBI for allegedly seeking a bribe from a medical college in April 2010 when he was the MCI president. He is now out on bail, but has cases pending against him, and has had his medical licence revoked.

The Supreme Court, the JSA has pointed out, had in a ruling in October 2013 observed: “much of the deterioration of the standards of probity and accountability with civil servants is due to political influence or persons purporting to represent those in authority”.

The JSA said the country’s public health system is widely seen as among “the poorest performing in the world” because of the systematic and callous neglect of the public health care institutions. “Actions such as (the transfer of Desiraju) that appear to defend corrupt practices... can only make things worse,” the JSA said.

Senior doctors familiar with Desiraju’s tenure first as additional secretary in the health ministry and then as secretary have also expressed their concern at his transfer.

“Desiraju has been a champion for the right to health of some of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups in India,” said Vikram Patel, a psychiatrist based in Goa and a professor of global mental health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“Under his visionary leadership,” Patel told this newspaper, “we now have a new mental health care bill, an expanded national mental health programme, and a draft mental health policy. He has been the best friend for mental health in the government in recent times.”

Kunal Saha, a non-resident Indian physician, campaigning against the return of Desai to MCI until he has been exonerated, today wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, urging him to take steps to bring back Desiraju to the health ministry.

“The abrupt transfer ... sends an ominous signal for doctors and the public at large,” Saha, president of the People for Better Treatment, wrote in his letter to the Prime Minister. “We request you to investigate these affairs and take measures to bring back Desiraju to the health department for helping promote a corruption-free and efficient medical system.”