The many political maneuvers behind TN Health Secy Beela Rajesh’s transfer

While some believe that the transfer was warranted, others say she is being made a scapegoat.
The many political maneuvers behind TN Health Secy Beela Rajesh’s transfer
The many political maneuvers behind TN Health Secy Beela Rajesh’s transfer

From Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami claiming as early as April that the coronavirus will be contained in three days, to the Health Department being forced to admit that deaths due to COVID-19 were incorrectly recorded, the state administration's credibility has taken quite a beating during the pandemic.

It’s at this juncture that on Friday morning, the government transferred Health Secretary Beela Rajesh, its most visible face, out of the department. Beela Rajesh was replaced by J Radhakrishnan, an officer who has previously held the post for seven years until 2019. The transfer came even as the number of cases in the state and especially its capital continue to see a steady rise.

The high profile transfer has split opinion down the middle. While some believe that the transfer was warranted, others say she is being made a scapegoat.

After the transfer was made public, there were voices praising Beela Rajesh for her contributions.

National Institute of Epidemiology Deputy Director Prabhdeep Kaur, who is also a member of Chief Minister's expert committee on COVID-19 said, “Dr Beela has provided excellent leadership to the health department of TN during #COVID19 - made immense contributions in establishing the largest lab network in the state and keeping the epidemic under control in majority of districts - it will be a great loss for the state.”

However, some in the department believe the transfer was expected.

"There has been talk of this for almost two weeks now," says a source from the department. "The manner in which she went about addressing important issues in the pandemic was very undemocratic. We have all worked with Radhakrishnan and he is excellent at building team spirit. With the former Health Secretary, however, the communication was only one way," says a source in the Health Department.

The source says that both Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and Chief Secretary K Shanmugam were unhappy with Beela Rajesh.

"There were complaints that she was not coordinating with district health authorities and the Chennai Corporation while tackling the pandemic," says a senior journalist who covers the Secretariat.

Beela’s transfer comes on the back of two major lapses, which furthered the spread of COVID-19 in the state - the Tablighi Jamaat and Koyambedu clusters. TNM had earlier quoted a source in the CMO saying that the Health Department's failure to coordinate with the state Intelligence unit had led to an unnecessary delay in tracing residents who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat conference. There has been controversy regarding the government’s misstep in not shutting down the Koyambedu market earlier itself, thereby allowing the cluster to spread.

Other sources, however, disagree and point out that the Health Department had functioned quite efficiently, and a cluster spreading despite contact tracing was not entirely in the government’s control. They also point out the sexism in criticism against her.

“How is one officer responsible for all this? Questions should be asked to Chennai Corporation Commissioner Prakash too about many of these things including why the Corporation did not report deaths to the state register,” said another source.

There is also speculation that a powerful minister who is close to the Chennai Corporation Commissioner was unhappy with the Health Secretary for questioning the Corporation.

Former bureaucrat Devasahayam points out that the Health Secretary was not alone in any of the decisions or actions.

"Wasn't she consulting the Health Minister C Vijayabhaskar the whole time? She couldn't have functioned alone during such a crisis," he says. "The bureaucrat in charge has been transferred for these mistakes. But what about the politician?" he asks.

He points out that it is common for bureaucrats to take the fall when politicians fail.

“When politicians fail to handle a situation and mismanage a disaster, an IAS officer is made the scapegoat," says former bureaucrat S Devasahayam. "The middle of a pandemic is not the time to replace a senior official. Even if Radhakrishnan does come in now, how can he suddenly make tides turn, when the situation is in such an advanced stage? Governance has completely collapsed and that is the bigger issue here," he adds.

And while the former bureaucrat does not doubt the capability of J Radhakrishnan in handling the crisis, he adds that the transfer itself is an effort to shift the complete blame for the mismanagement on a bureaucrat and to avoid criticism against the government as a whole.

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