J. Radhakrishnan replaces Beela Rajesh as Tamil Nadu Health Secretary

Published : June 12, 2020 15:30 IST

J. Radhakrishnan, new Health Secretaary of Tamil Nadu. Photo: R. Ravindran

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the top-most official who handles the Health Department has been transferred out. As infections in Chennai begin to spin out of control and a discrepancy in the death count surfaced, the Tamil Nadu government shunted out its Health Secretary, Dr Beela Rajesh, and brought in J. Radhakrishnan, a seasoned bureaucrat, to replace her.

An order issued by the government on June 12, said Dr Beela Rajesh had been posted as Commercial Taxes and Registration Department Secretary, which is a remarkably soft landing for an officer whose handling of the pandemic response was questioned within her department and by her peers in the service. One official source said Health Minister C. Vijayabaskar was steadfast in his suppor of her handling of the pandemic.

"It is a bit late [for the change]," commented a senior civil servant in the front lines fighting the COVID-19 epidemic in the State. "Too late, but better late than never," remarked a former Minister.

A 1992 batch officer, Radhakrishnan had been Health Secretary until he was shifted in February 2019 after a long stint in the department. He was in the Transport Department for about eight months before being moved to Revenue Administration. Beela Rajesh, a 1997 batch officer, was posted in the Health Department in 2019. As the number of COVID-19 infections rose, Radhakrishnan was drafted into a committee to oversee the implementation of government policies. Unfortunately, this and similar other committees could not do much given the resistance and turf war.

Officers in the Health Department said they had tried to talk to Beela Rajesh on multiple occasions about the gaps in the COVID-19 response. They were shut down or shunted out. "She no longer takes my phone calls," said an officer a few weeks ago when the number of cases was exploding in Chennai and there was a desperate need for syncing strategies of the Health Department and the Chennai Corporation.

The Health Department lost precious time in increasing the number of beds in government hospitals even as at least two Deans of medical colleges in Chennai maintained that they were running out of beds. A 2005 batch officer in the Health department, S. Nagarajan, who handled the highly technical Tamil Nadu Health Systems project, raised this and other issues and was of the view that the government hospital system could take much more, one Health Department official said. "This is a person who was visiting medical colleges during the height of the pandemic to figure out what more could be done. He was abruptly transferred out," the official added.

Radhakrishnan has his task cut out: increase testing across the State, increase capacity in government hospitals, develop an effective strategy to contain the spike in infections in the containment zones, push medical research institutions to come up with an effective and tested protocol to treat COVID-19, and coordinate the work of three major departments which have worked in silos so far — Health, Local Administration and Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority.