The Weekend Leader - Dr J Radhakrishnan IAS | Life Story

From tsunami relief and rehab, to tackling Covid and floods, this IAS officer leads from the front

Usha Prasad   |  


Vol 12 | Issue 52

On the morning of December 26, 2004, Dr J Radhakrishnan, then district collector of Thanjavur, was at the tennis court, when he felt the ground shaking mildly.

He had no clue then that from that very day onwards, for the next few months he would have to witness a devastating tragedy of the kind he or the State of Tamil Nadu had not encountered in recent memory.

Dr J Radhakrishnan, a 1992 batch IAS officer, has been in the thick of action during several calamities in Tamil Nadu (Photos: Bosco)

A cataclysmic tsunami had hit Tamil Nadu. Radhakrishnan realised the severity of the situation when he started getting phone calls from collectors of neighbouring districts seeking ambulances and relief materials.

Shortly, he received instructions to rush to the affected areas in the neighbouring districts and oversee relief work.

“I left for Nagapattinam, which is about 85 km from Thanjavur,” Radhakrishnan recalls the beginning of his harrowing experience.

“The first sight I saw was 900 bodies at the government hospital in Thanjavur. In the nearby Akkaraipettai around 2,000 people had lost their lives.”

Today, 17 years later, Radhakrishnan is still remembered for his tsunami relief and rehabilitation work in the coastal districts of Tamil Nadu, where in some parts sea water had entered up to two kilometres into land.

He is currently the health secretary of Tamil Nadu and has led from the front the state government’s fight against Covid pandemic. Throughout his career as a civil servant he has left his mark in every department or district he has served.

Radhakrishnan's work during the tsunami was lauded by former US President Bill Clinton

Radhakrishnan’s tsunami relief and rehabilitation work had received international media attention. Former US President Bill Clinton too appreciated his work when he visited the tsunami ravaged towns in Tamil Nadu in 2005 as a UN special envoy for tsunami recovery.

“We were greatly benefited by independent people including the UN agencies like UNICEF and UNDP that helped us in the needs assessment,” says Radhakrishnan, a 1992-batch IAS officer.

One of his greatest strengths was to work closely with NGOs. “We realised that the government alone cannot run the 2,000 relief centres, where around one lakh people were sheltered,” he says.

“We had to build temporary shelters on the land identified by the government for people to move in. The NGOs had come forward to build it.”

The next challenge was to handle children with no parents, especially girls in the age group of 14 to 18 years.

“There were around 99 children who had nobody to take care of them. We set up an orphanage for them. The home, Annai Sathya Illam, is there even today,” says Radhakrishnan.

Radhakrishnan with Chennai Corporation working during the 2021 floods in Chennai

“Except for two to three children, the rest have grown up and have either joined their extended families or have got married.”

Radhakrishnan’s family is close to two girls, namely, Meena and Sowmya, who are currently doing their second and third-year B.Com respectively.

Meena was three months old, and Somya was nine months old, when they were brought to the home. The two girls consider Radhakrishnan and his wife as their parents and call them ‘Appa’ and ‘Amma’.

Radhakrishnan’s family keeps in touch with them and offers them emotional and moral support. The family also supported Santhakumari, a fisherman’s wife, who had expressed her desire to study and do a PhD.

Today, Santhakumari is an assistant professor in a college.

Less than six months before the tsunami, Radhakrishnan had to handle another unfortunate incident that had claimed the lives of 94 children in a school fire accident at Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district.

Recalling the tragedy, Radhakrishnan says, “Thirteen children from a village called Natham had died in the incident. The whole village was mourning the loss and for two to three days they had not taken any food.

Radhakrishnan holds a PG degree in Veterinary Science. He cracked the IAS in his third attempt

“As a family, we visited every house and extended psycho-social support to the grieving families. I still remember how my son, who was just five years old, coaxed an old woman to drink some water. The old woman felt her grandson had come alive and was greatly comforted.”

When Radhakrishnan visited Kumbakonam after many years, an old woman who had lost her grandson in the school fire came running to enquire about him and his family and expressed her gratitude for his support in their hour of grief.

“These are the incidents I cannot forget in my life,” says Radhakrishnan.

Born in Madras (now Chennai), Dr. Radhakrishnan studied in Kendriya Vidyalaya schools at Kanpur, Chandigarh, Deolali, and Nashik up to Class 12 as his father was a Warrant Officer in the Air Force and he had been posted in various places across India.

He graduated in Veterinary Science (BVSc) from the Veterinary College, Hebbal, Bangalore, in 1988, and then did his PG in Veterinary Science (Animal Breeding and Genetics) from Kerala Agricultural University.

Radhakrishnan completed his Civil Service examinations in the third attempt and qualified for the Indian Administrative Service in 1992.

He got a chance to work closely with the current Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M K Stalin, when the latter was the Mayor of Chennai Corporation between 1996 and 2001.

Radhakrishnan with his wife and TV host Krithika

He served as the Deputy Commissioner of health and solid waste management, Chennai Corporation, before being elevated as Commissioner.

“The Mayor encouraged us to experiment a lot in solid waste management. A lot of health initiatives were taken up then,” he says.

After the Jayalalithaa government came to power, he was posted as Collector of Salem District in 2001. It was around the time that Jayalalithaa had launched the Cradle Baby Scheme to tackle female infanticide.

Parents who did not want to keep the girl children could offer them to the State, which would take responsibility of them.

“I still remember, in December 2001, two women came up to me and gave their babies urging me to take them into the government’s care,” he recalls.

After maintaining the babies for a few days, the government would put them up in authorised adoption agencies. The immediate impact of the scheme was the sad incidents of female infanticide and foeticide came down.

The best thing about Radhakrishnan is that he has managed to remain in the good books of both the DMK and AIADMK – the two main parties that have alternately ruled Tamil Nadu since 1967.

He has maintained good relations with both the DMK patriarch Karunanidhi and AIADMK iron-lady Jayalalithaa.

Radhakrishnan's son Arvind has completed his MBBS

After their demise, he has worked under EPS, who succeeded Jayalalithaa as CM and now under the current CM Stalin in key portfolios.

Radhakrishnan's wife Krithika, who did her MBA in International Business after marriage, is a popular face on Tamil TV channels hosting cookery, travel, health, and infotainment shows.

The couple have a son, Arvind, who recently completed his MBBS. Radhakrishnan has an elder brother, J Vaidyanathan, who is a senior Vice President at IndusInd Bank.

Despite his busy schedules, Radhakrishnan often makes time to go on long drives and travel to different countries with his family.

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