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Parameswaran Iyer, Modi’s IAS man for Swachh Bharat, reveals how the mission was achieved

In a new book, Parameswaran Iyer shares inside details from his four years working with the sanitation ministry, having a direct line to PM Modi and breaking 'sarkari' norms.  

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New Delhi: Aap wahin hai na jo IAS chhod ke bhaag gaye the? (Aren’t you the person who ran away from the IAS?)”

This is how Parameswaran Iyer recalls his first interaction with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Handpicked by the PM to deliver the Swachh Bharat promise, Iyer would go on to become the name synonymous with the project that made India open defecation free (ODF).

The interaction is one of many nuggets from his four-year stint with the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) that Iyer has penned down in his new book ‘Method in the Madness — Insights from My Career as an Insider-Outsider-Insider’.

While he worked with four ministers, he was always directly answerable to the ‘Big Boss’; he had to keep the “village elders” (the top officials in the government) always in the loop; the had to get inventive tackling the old-school government workings — all of this and more make up the pages of the former civil servant’s book.

Iyer resigned from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in 2009 after 17 years in service, only to come back as secretary of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) in 2016. At the time, PM Modi had vowed to declare the country ODF in five years.

In Iyer’s own words, “no previous government had ever laterally recruited an ex-civil servant at the level of secretary to the Government of India”. It was an opportunity Iyer, who was then working at the World Bank, grabbed immediately. Four years later, with his job done, Iyer once again quit the government to go back to the World Bank in 2020.

Iyer recalls his staff being scandalised by his “non-sarkari” style of working; he would reach the office at 8.30 am everyday. On his first day at work, he told his principal private secretary to remove the letters I.A.S. from the board outside his office.

“I used to be (an IAS officer), but am no longer. Believe it or not, I am a non-IAS secretary to the Government of India,” he told his secretary.

Also read: Modi’s favourite Parameswaran Iyer belongs to the cult of super IAS officers like TN Seshan

When the lateral entrant met ‘sarkari’ systems

In the days that followed, Iyer revamped his team at the ministry, handpicking a “crew of believers” to achieve the seemingly insurmountable task of building a 56 per cent sanitation coverage in rural India in about three years. While 40,000 villages in India had been declared ODF at the time, Iyer’s target was 6 lakh.

He immediately encountered the sceptics within the government. “Other than one or two younger, more enthusiastic officers, most of them held that since sanitation, according to the Constitution of India, was not a federal but a state subject, its implementation was the responsibility of the states,” he says in the book.

His most senior officer, in fact, advised him that the Centre should “focus from a distance”. Iyer realised that he “needed to shake up the laissez-faire environment in the ministry, and for this, new blood was required”.

As a unique lateral entrant himself, Iyer is a huge supporter of instituting lateral entry into government as a norm. “As far as the ‘permanent’ insiders are concerned, I believe that in this day and age of specialised skills and domain knowledge, it is important for the IAS to re-engineer itself and encourage officers, after about 15 years of field experience, to “specialise” in certain broad areas … The selection process for officers at the highest levels in the Government of India should also be made more targeted, and, I believe, based on inviting applications and holding interviews to find the best fit for the job,” he writes.

Also read: On World Toilet Day, a look at India’s sanitation data and the ground realities

Leveraging Modi’s political capital for SBM

Iyer worked with four ministers during his term — Chaudhary Birendra Singh, Narendra Singh Tomar, Uma Bharti and Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, all of whom he had a good working relationship with. However, he was answerable for the delivery of the SBM to the “Big Boss himself”, PM Modi.

Iyer had over time developed an extremely healthy relationship with Modi, whose political capital he immensely leveraged to deliver on SBM, he says.

He recalls a top official in the Prime Minister’s Office telling him: “No other secretary to the government has utilised the PM’s mass appeal for a flagship programme as much as you have.”

“In the four plus years that I worked on SBM, we ended up doing a record 10 major public events with the PM, something no other national flagship programme has come even close to achieving,” Iyer writes.

In addition to the PM, Iyer made sure the top officers in the government — former principal secretary to the PM Nripendra Misra, then additional principal secretary to the PM P.K. Mishra (now the Principal Secretary) and then cabinet secretary P.K. Sinha (now the Principal Advisor to the PM) — were always in the loop.

Referring to this group as the “village elders”, Iyer writes: “Keeping them engaged and involved in the primary aspects of the SBM not only ensured that they trusted me to work on my own terms without micro-management, but was also reassuring in that we were all on the same wavelength, in case problems arose.”

Also read: Between Swachh Bharat & deaths – where is the sanitation policy for manual scavengers?

Dealing with the ‘glass-half-empty gang’

According to Iyer, since the SBM was so closely identified with PM Modi, his detractors found the programme “an effective punching bag, a means to criticize him politically”.

Early on, he and his team noticed “the overriding bias that some groups, with undoubted vested interests, had against the programme”. Their “standard template”, according to Iyer, was to undertake field visits, find the worst-performing villages, and portray exceptions as the norm.

Thus, Iyer came up with a strategy — his team would issue point-by-point rebuttals to critical stories the same day, and request the media house to carry it immediately. While on one hand, the strategy allowed the government’s version to get media space, on the other, “it encouraged editors to exercise more stringent judgment and not let shallow and ill-researched articles pass”.

The ministry also had a difference of opinion with a senior United Nations representative, Leo Heller, on his official visit to India, where he made “a major faux pas” by saying that it is time to replace the lens of Mahatma Gandhi’s glasses (the logo of the SBM) with the human rights lens. The government issued a point-by-point rebuttal to Heller.

Eventually, the SBM identified a list of influential persons and journalists who they communicated with directly to preempt “erroneous articles” from being written.

In the end, after the successful completion of SBM, Iyer argues that he increasingly began feeling a sense of “anti-climax”. While he does not elaborate any further, he says that in the weeks after India was declared ODF by Modi, he felt that it was time to hand over the reins to someone else, and focus on his family back in the US.

Also read: Lateral entry experts have ‘become like any IAS officer’ a year into recruitment


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