Ketan Desai’s Legal Troubles Plague Global Medical Ethics Body

Why an Indian doctor accused of crimes is set to lead the world’s top medical ethics body

Updated31 Jul 2015, 10:42 AM IST
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Dr Ketan Desai, a former president of the Medical Council of India (MCI), is soon going to be the President of the World Medical Association (WMA) for 2016, four years after the MCI had suspended his licence for alleged corruption.  

His confirmation as WMA president comes after the Indian Medical Association (IMA) told the world body that all charges against Dr Desai had been withdrawn, who no longer heads the Medical Council of India.

The WMA sets ethical standards for millions of physicians worldwide in more than 100 countries. Its members include the American Medical Association and the British Medical Association. But just why did the world’s leading national medical associations support him?

Ketan Desai’s Support Base

 The New Delhi headquarters of the Indian Medical Association. The organization has repeatedly asserted that Desai is in the clear (Photo: Reuters)
The New Delhi headquarters of the Indian Medical Association. The organization has repeatedly asserted that Desai is in the clear (Photo: Reuters)

It’s quite a masterstroke for a doctor facing criminal allegations to get selected as the future president of the world’s leading medical ethics body.

He has been one of Medical Council’s most powerful figures in recent decades, twice serving as president. He enjoys the support of stout allies, distinguished doctors, a New Delhi businessman who boasts that he has partied with pop star Rihanna, and a top WMA official who compared him to a World War II resistance fighter against the Nazis.

WMA’s due diligence into the criminal allegations against Desai were also based on information provided by the Indian Medical Association, which Desai once headed.

Some prominent voices say that Desai’s election threatens the credibility of the world body.

The whole force of the WMA is its moral authority. You can’t have a compromised leader, you just can’t. People will just point towards your President and say: ‘Why should we care? You have a leader who is morally suspect. You’re not in a position to lecture us about anything.

– Arthur Caplan, Director, Division of Medical Ethics, New York University Langone Medical Center.

Caplan has urged the WMA to look for another leader.

Some allies, including a leader of the Indian Medical Association, say Desai is perfect for the job.

He has a vast knowledge, experience and leadership qualities to become the WMA President.

–Dr K.K. Aggarwal, Honorary Secretary General, Indian Medical Association

No objections: Dr. Ardis Hoven, former head of the American Medical Association, says the U.S. doctors’ body didn’t oppose Desai’s selection as WMA chief (Photo: Reuters)
No objections: Dr. Ardis Hoven, former head of the American Medical Association, says the U.S. doctors’ body didn’t oppose Desai’s selection as WMA chief (Photo: Reuters)

The AMA delegation has not had an opportunity or a reason to discuss this issue recently.

–Dr. Ardis Hoven, former president, American Medical Association

Desai’s Brush With Law

In Limbo: Desai is scheduled to assume the WMA presidency in 2016 (Photo: Reuters)
In Limbo: Desai is scheduled to assume the WMA presidency in 2016 (Photo: Reuters)

2001: The Delhi High Court ordered Desai be removed from the office of the Medical Council and prosecuted on allegations brought by another doctor. The court ruled that he abused his position as the chief regulator of medical colleges and received unexplained large monetary gifts.

If those who are entrusted with the task of ensuring proper medical education and medical services in the country are to act in such dishonest manner, it is complete betrayal of the trust reposed.

–Delhi High Court Judgment, 2001

A subsequent probe by the CBI found no evidence of wrongdoing by Desai. The case eventually closed.

2010: Desai was to be inaugurated by the WMA at its meeting in Vancouver, Canada. But in April that year, he was arrested and jailed. He and several other defendants were accused by the CBI of conspiring to extract Rs 20 million bribe from officials at Gian Sagar Medical College, Punjab.

In exchange, the CBI alleged, Desai helped the college get a recommendation from the Medical Council to allow the school to accept a new class of 100 students, for a total of about 400 overall, even though it lacked such basics as an auditorium.

May 2010: CBI alleged he had entered into a criminal conspiracy in 2009 to help a private medical college in Uttar Pradesh get a favourable ruling from the Medical Council

2013: In a turn of events, the central government failed to win parliamentary support for replacing the Medical Council. So, in 2013, the government ordered elections for the council’s board. In one of its first acts, the new board reinstated Desai’s medical license, according to council officials at the time.

2013: That same year, Desai got a hand from another ally: the Indian Medical Association, where he had served as president from 2001 to 2002. The doctors’ lobby asked the WMA to lift the suspension, claiming that the charges against him had been withdrawn.

In Limbo

Ketan Desai walks after his hearing at a courthouse in Lucknow, June 27, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)
Ketan Desai walks after his hearing at a courthouse in Lucknow, June 27, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

The CBI says Desai could be prosecuted in both the Lucknow and New Delhi cases. The WMA say their organisation had no rules defining what to do if a president-elect or other senior official was arrested.

Desai is scheduled to take over the WMA presidency in a little more than a year. That leaves the association’s succession plan at the mercy of India’s courts, where cases typically drag on for years.

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Published: 31 Jul 2015, 10:39 AM IST
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