Dr.J Radhakrishnan, IAS – A Guardian Angel During Disasters – By Sanjay Pinto


This could be another Murphy’s law: avoid the media glare but end up with more publicity! For an officer who has always preferred to let his work do the talking, Dr.J.Radhakrishnan must be tired of seeing his pictures in newspapers. You can easily mistake Tamil Nadu’s Health Secretary for a model or an actor – tall, fair, slim and with arguably the best wardrobe in babudom.But beneath all those flashy colours and debonair presence lies a heart of gold. Don’t take my word. Ask close to a hundred children in Nagapattinam who were orphaned by the tsunami when he was rushed to the district. They didn’t call him ‘Collector Ayya’ or ‘Saar’. It was ‘Appa’ – a term of endearment that came about spontaneously because Radhakrishnan didn’t merely distribute food packets at welfare centres but his whole family spent weeks looking after them like their own relatives. “Even after leaving Nagapattinam, I do visit the place at least once or twice a year. Out of affection, these children call me appa and it’s very touching.” As for sections of the media, the prefix ‘tsunami’ is used to distinguish his rather common name from the others in the bureaucracy.

It was almost as if Radhakrishnan was destined to be at the helm of relief and restoration work in the aftermath of some of the worst tragedies Tamil Nadu has witnessed. If there were 99 children who lost their parents to the killer waves, 94 parents lost their children in a terrible blaze that engulfed a school in Kumbakonnam, Thanjavur district the same year. Here too, Radhakrishnan was the Collector. “The resilience displayed by the affected people has left a deep impact on me and is a constant reminder on the need to focus on Disaster Risk reduction initiatives and the need to actively involve the local communities in such efforts.” Having covered his work on NDTV extensively in the past, the one quality, apart from being easily accessible, that makes this IAS officer of the 92 batch stand out, is his habit of always sharing credit for a job well done. Not many would view the aftermath of tragedies as “an opportunity” to serve people. Not many would so willingly declare that the “policy directions and Government orders were instrumental in enabling us at the field level to provide succour to the victims and their families”. Not many would acknowledge the “complementary role of NGOs” in the healing process. Radhakrishnan always does, as would any good team player.

If Dr.Abdul Kalam was referred to as the ‘People’s President’, Dr.J.Radhakrishnan would automatically qualify for the title of ‘People’s Collector’. And such encomiums are not very different from what he received from former US President Bill Clinton when he visited the tsunami ravaged Nagapattinam district as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy. Few were surprised when this dynamic officer was handpicked to be the country head of the United Nations Development Programme.

My closest interaction with him used to be at the Ripon Building when he was the Commissioner of the Chennai Corporation. With a revival of the post of Mayor, one would have expected a more senior bureaucrat in the hot seat (Remember the likes of Special Officer L.M.Menezes who were very senior IAS officers at the Corporation). Radhakrishnan had completed under ten years at the time but his performance was brilliant. All that it took to have a pot hole filled, a road re-laid or mosquito infested areas fogged was a simple text message. I will never forget shooting an off beat story on his strategy to catch stray pigs in Nandanam. These ‘street smart’ porcine creatures had chased away Corporation staff who tried to catch them! So our Commissioner hit upon the idea of roping in professional ‘rearers’ to do the job.

Where there’s a challenge, there’s Radhakrishnan. Whether it was bringing warring castes to attend peace meetings in sensitive districts or overseeing the implementation of Special Programmes of the Government, you would seldom fail to notice this officer in bright coloured shirts rolling up his sleeves in the thick of action. Had he not been in the IAS, I suspect that apparel manufacturers would have bent backwards to sign him up as their brand ambassador!

As the Health Secretary, Radhakrishnan has had his hands full with the H1N1 scare and claims that “Tamil Nadu has been able to contain it effectively and prevent its spread so far by putting in place a multi-dimensional effort such as entry point screening camps, stocking up Oseltamavir, vaccinating the health workers,having hand washing campaigns, putting in place isolation wards with adequate ventilators and facilities and a vibrant coordination with the private sector, involving the IMA.”

I have often wondered about when a day would come when VIPs choose to get treated in government hospitals, like they do in the West, instead of jetting to foreign countries for surgeries, including hair transplants! That would probably take years. For now, Radhakrishnan proudly rattles off some highlights:
“68 percent of the approximately 10.5 lakh deliveries per annum in the State take place in Government institutions. We handle over five lakh outpatients and over 60,000 inpatients per day. The Government has strengthened the Primary sector having 8706 Health Sub centres, 1751 Primary Health Centres and the 270 District and Sub district hospitals apart from providing State of Art services in the 43 tertiary care hospitals attached to the 19 Government medical colleges and at the Super specialty hospital at Chennai. The Chief Ministers’ Health Insurance Scheme also ensures that the people are able to access services in the 769 empanelled private and Government Hospitals.”

That he is known for his bullwork, dogged spirit and horse sense can probably be traced to his academic background. Radhakrishnan is a veterinarian by qualification. And the service mindedness to his family background. Three generations of his family have been in government service. Right from his grandfather who was a Railway Engineer to his father the Late V.Jaganathan who was with the Indian Air Force or his mother Tripurasundari who was with the Telephone department and then became a banker, Radhakrishnan has kept the ‘sarkari’ connection alive. But it was a fascination for “converting visions into policies and ultimately implementing them on the field” that drew Radhakrishnan to the Civil Services.

The wife is no less stylish than the husband. A private producer and anchor of Television programmes, Krithika puts together programmes on cookery, health, lifestyle and tourism. Along with their son Arvind, who is finishing his schooling this year, the trio have immersed themselves in welfare activities wherever he is posted. “They are big pillars of strength.” And the brain behind his wardrobe too?!







 Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer, Columnist, Author, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7