Keshav Desiraju: Distinguished public servant, voice of conscience, friend
Keshav Desiraju was a formidable presence in the Indian State. In a career spanning four decades in the Indian Administrative Service, he worked in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and with the central government. Passionate about public welfare, as Union Health Secretary, Keshav Desiraju made landmark contributions to medical education, the rural health system and mental health.
The outpouring of memories from friends in public office and civil society are testament to his contributions. Keshav studied economics at the University of Cambridge and earned his Master’s in Public Administration as a Mason Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He was also committed to research and engaged closely with Indian scholars and the global academic community.
Keshav and I first met in 2008, at his office in the Secretariat building in Dehradun. He was serving then as Principal Health Secretary of Uttarakhand. I was a curious graduate student at the time, embarking on field research for my doctoral thesis. Keshav welcomed me into his office and asked that I take a seat. Within minutes, he was engrossed in a discussion of my research topic, the delivery of India’s universal primary education programming. I took copious notes as Keshav fired away with probing questions and promising avenues to explore. Having served as Education Secretary previously, he had his own burning questions about the government school system: “What is preventing quality services from reaching our rural schools? Why are so many parents going after private schools, at such high personal cost? What are other school systems doing to integrate rural girls? How can we learn from them?” Keen that I spend time away from Dehradun to engage with communities in the hill districts, Keshav moved quickly to facilitate my field visits.
I left the room feeling like I had found a kindred spirit. Little did I know that our encounter in Dehradun would produce a friendship spanning 13 years. Over this time, we had countless conversations about India’s political economy, the State and human development. A generous interlocutor, Keshav always made himself available to discuss my research ideas and writings. He listened patiently before giving sincere feedback.
Keshav took an active interest in policy-related research and he contributed to academic conferences in India and abroad. He spoke on subjects ranging from rural health care and education to women’s security and gender-based violence. A sharp, analytical mind combined with deep institutional experience, Keshav brought an invaluable perspective to the table. If he felt that a policy idea required more evidence, or that it went astray of common sense, he would say so. He disagreed passionately and expressed his ideas with candour. He exuded humility and always sought to learn from others.
Keshav’s demeanour was disarmingly simple. He appreciated a nice pair of socks, but otherwise he was understated. Notwithstanding his vast experience, he was perennially self-effacing. He rejected distinctions based on social status. These personal attributes were more remarkable considering that Keshav hailed from a renowned family of scholars and statesmen. His grandfather, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, was a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford and served as the second President of India. His uncle, Sarvepalli Gopal, was an esteemed historian. Keshav never spoke of his august pedigree. I learned of it only years after we became friends, from a common acquaintance.
In many ways, Keshav was a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat. He was forever punctual. His words, measured. Events required appropriate planning in advance. Paperwork had to be tidy and files kept in order. He saw value in administrative systems. But he also questioned the assumptions on which bureaucracy operated. He challenged stifling rules and broke through red tape. He sought field-based evidence before reaching policy judgments.
More than anything, he opposed hierarchy. He gave subordinates their due respect, treating them more like his teammates. Similar ideals informed his interactions with citizens. As District Magistrate of Almora, I learned that Keshav travelled by foot to villages, where he took stock of public services and monitored implementation. The recent outpouring of memories from residents of Almora and other parts of Uttarakhand, whose lives he touched decades ago, speaks to his impact on the ground.
Keshav had an unwavering concern for others. Perhaps this is why he chose to work in public health and education. These policy arenas suffered from longstanding neglect. Among IAS circles, they were conventionally perceived as lower status portfolios. But Keshav was unencumbered by convention. He had the courage to enter spaces where the State’s presence was most needed. He created openings for Indian civil society organisations to inform and improve upon State efforts. He took particular interest in policies affecting women, children, the mentally ill, and other vulnerable groups.
When weighing policy options, he tried to see things from the vantage point of the most marginalised citizen. Keshav’s contributions as Union Health Secretary earned him public recognition. He was a driving force behind the development of India’s Mental Health Act of 2017. Working quietly behind the scenes, he advanced numerous other programs.
Keshav’s interests were wide-ranging, spanning politics, history, literature and the arts. He had a love for Indian classical music. An aficionado of the Carnatic genre, he relished live performances. My affinities lay instead with Hindustani tabla and sitar, but he never held this against me. Keshav’s recent book, Of Gifted Voice, a biography of M.S. Subbulakshmi, showcased the depth of his knowledge of Carnatic music. Afternoons with Keshav brought nourishing conversations interspersed with tea and snacks, often followed by sambar and rice. Now and again, Keshav would hum a ragam, his eyes momentarily veering away, lost in the melody. After dinner, Keshav appreciated a good single malt, treated with one teaspoon of water. For all his seriousness of purpose, he maintained good humour and an almost child-like ease. Marzipan sweet was his great weakness. His face would light up whenever he received a box.
In our final exchange, but a few days ago over email, Keshav offered thoughts on a recent paper I had published on girls’ education reforms in Uttar Pradesh. He recalled his time as District Magistrate of Uttarkashi, where he had had fought to extend a residential schooling program for disadvantaged girls from Grade 8 to Grade 10, which helped make it possible for them to complete high school. Not satisfied with his efforts, he wanted girls’ education programs to be supported much further. As he wrote in the closing lines of his email: “How much there is to do, and how cruel our system is.” Till his last days, Keshav was concerned with how the public system treated those in need.
Keshav Desiraju was the kind of friend one yearns for, but seldom finds. Today, I mourn the loss of my dear friend. But I also celebrate the richness of his life and all that it represented. Behind his gentle mannerisms and mischievous smile was a bright light, which radiated an unqualified commitment to public welfare. Through acts, both small and large, he left his mark on India’s institutions, making them stronger. He proved what government can accomplish, so long as it puts humanity first. May the memory of Keshav Desiraju keep us tethered to this greater purpose.
Akshay Mangla is an Associate Professor of International Business at the University of Oxford
The views expressed are personal
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