Published on: September 6, 2021

Pallium India is deeply saddened by the death of Mr Keshav Desiraju, former Principal Secretary of Government of India, grandson of the first vice-president of India Dr S Radhakrishnan and a trustee of Pallium India. He died following a heart attack, on September 5, 2021.

May his soul rest in peace. Our thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family.

Please read Dr Rajagopal’s note:

I live with a lot of life and a lot of death around me. Life, because people share so much of themselves to me at a time when they are looking back on their lives and looking for meaning in it. And I live with a lot of people who are dying too.

So I should be able to take news like this with calm composure. But I could not, when informed by Dr Sumana this morning that Shri Keshav Desiraju IAS, former Principal Secretary of Government of India, died of a heart attack today.

I remember our first meeting nine years back. I was to attend a side-event on access to palliative care at a World Health Assembly in Geneva. Discreet enquiries in Delhi had brought in the information that Shri Desiraju, the principal secretary of Health, would be attending the meeting, that he had a reputation for integrity, pragmatism and intelligence. Years of work with Mr David Joranson of PPSG and Mr Diederik Lohman of Human Rights Watch had taught me the value of connecting with such people.

There was no way I could meet him in India. I decided to find him at WHO in Geneva. Guided by one look at his photograph on the internet, I finally tracked him down in a cafeteria during a recess. I was ready with my elevator-pitch, introduced myself and invited him to our side-event at lunch-hour the next day. He spoke three words, “I will come”.

And he came. He was there all through the one-hour program at lunch-break, during which I had seven minutes to speak about the lack of access to palliative care in India and the need for a palliative care policy for every country. He was gone as soon as the meeting was over and I could not meet him again; we NGO representatives had no access to the hall in which Government attendees sat.

Within two weeks of his return to India, I got an invitation from the Ministry of Health to attend a meeting in Delhi. He had put Dr Sudhir Gupta (then deputy director general of Health services and the creator of India’s Transplantation of Human Organs Act) in charge, who got together representatives of various organisations, and in a few months, India’s National Program for Palliative Care (NPPC) was created. We invited him to visit us in Trivandrum and he not only did; this man who was in charge of the health of 1.3 billion people, spent an entire half-day with us, actually joining me on a home visit.

When Shri Desiraju retired from government service, we invited him to be a trustee of Pallium India. He promptly accepted and stayed on as our pillar of strength until the day he died.

And despite all my familiarity with death, this loss hurts like hell.

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