A Srinagar-born son of an Indian Air Force officer, a student of St Stephen’s college who represented India at the Junior Davis Cup, Parameswaran Iyer is a former IAS officer who is now building the largest number of toilets in the world. He also belongs to the cult of Indian super bureaucrats like T.N. Seshan, Amitabh Kant and K.J. Alphons. All of them are mission-mode stars of a slothful bureaucracy.
Parameswaran Iyer has built 11 crore toilets all over India in 60 months, creating an army of six lakh swachhgrahis to carry forward the Swachh Bharat idea, and inspired over 600 skilled young professionals (Zila Swachh Bharat Preraks) who are financed by Tata Trusts.
From Vietnam to India
But just five years ago, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced Swachh Bharat Mission from the ramparts of the Red Fort on 15 August 2014, Parameswaran Iyer was watching it in Hanoi, where he was working for the World Bank. He told his wife, Indira, an Indian Revenue Service officer, that he wished he could go back to India to be a part of the programme.
Call it fate, the 1981-batch IAS officer who had quit the government to join the World Bank got a call in 2016, and a chance to play a role in translating the Prime Minister’s vision into reality as secretary in the department of drinking water and sanitation. Since then the 60-year-old has powered the Swachh Bharat Mission in rural India, focusing on the goal of making India free of open defecation. He has now been given the additional charge of another of the Prime Minister’s pet projects, the Jal Jeevan Mission, with the ambitious goal of providing piped water supply to all households by 2024 through integrated water supply management at the grassroots.
The World Bank experience
Just like T.N. Seshan changed the way the Election Commission was run and reinforced confidence in its independence, and Amitabh Kant showed us how to market India as a destination through his Incredible India campaign, Param Iyer, as he is called, will forever be associated with the people’s movement Swachh Bharat has become.
Whether it was getting into a twin-pit and cleaning the dried excreta, or getting actor Akshay Kumar to front the campaign, Iyer has made the Swachh Bharat Mission his single-minded pursuit. Little wonder, the Prime Minister singled him out for praise, on his radio broadcast Mann ki Baat in 2017, and at a function addressing ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’ volunteers in Bihar’s Champaran in 2018.
Iyer’s career has been marked by two stints at the World Bank. He was spotted by a World Bank official, the influential Piers Cross, in 1987. The late Cross, one of the most influential global activists in the water sector, worked in the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP) for over 20 years in different positions, including global manager and regional director for Africa and South Asia.
At that time, Iyer was leading the World Bank-assisted Uttar Pradesh Rural Water Supply and Environmental Sanitation Project, commonly known as Swajal. Vandana Mehra who was with the World Bank for many years tells ThePrint: “Piers was looking for a sharpshooter for the World Bank’s technical assistance unit named Water and Sanitation Progamme, or WSP, whose operations ceased in June 2017. I think the stars aligned fantastically and Param got his secondment from the IAS to join the World Bank.” She adds, “He started the India-based operations (assistance and knowledge only, no lending) for WSP and built a terrific team. His high spirits, energy and stamina as a forty-something were unmatched. He was also fair, just and highly disciplined in his work ethic.”
After his secondment ran out, he returned to the civil services, but didn’t last long. In 2009, Iyer quit the IAS and moved to the World Bank in Washington DC, still working on rural water and sanitation, but now wearing a global hat, working in Egypt and Vietnam.
Right man for the right job
Iyer inspires much loyalty among his largely young staff. But he also inspires admiration among his peers and seniors. Kant, CEO of Niti Aayog, calls him a “phenomenal officer”. He tells ThePrint: “He is extremely inspirational and motivational. He sets ambitious targets, drives aggressively from the front, builds a cohesive team, believes in community participation and behavioural change.” “He is constantly on the move, travelling to remote areas, monitoring, evaluating, strategising delivery on the ground. He is a rare officer who can deliver challenging projects of immense size and scale like the Swachh Bharat Mission,” says Kant.
Not that the goal was easy. In 2014, when the Prime Minister talked about toilets from the Red Fort, 61 per cent Indians were still defecating in the open. “The Swachh Bharat revolution has been able to bring 55 crore people out of open defecation. The use of toilets has gone up by 90 per cent,” Param Iyer recently told India Today TV, calling it a dynamic process.
But numbers don’t tell the complete story. The most difficult part, and also the unique part, of the Swachh Bharat Mission compared to the previous sanitation programmes was that the government was attempting to change behaviour at an unprecedented scale, and in record time. As Iyer said at ThePrint’s Off The Cuff: “This is a community-driven programme so when the triggering takes place, everyone in the community is there. And when they understand why it is important, they start doing it – cleaning the toilets – themselves.”
But the revolution is far from complete. The Prime Minister highlighted during his speech at the Swachh Bharat Diwas event on 2 October in Ahmedabad that although rural India has been declared open-defecation free (ODF), this is only a milestone in a continuous journey. Behaviour change has to be sustained on a continuous basis, and moving from ODF to ODF-plus by incorporating solid and liquid waste management will be the next goal for the Swachh Bharat Mission.
Former coal and school education secretary Anil Swarup believes Param Iyer is the perfect man for the job. “He’s an out and out team man who knows how to get things moving. He believes in going out into the field to gauge the state of affairs and motivate field workers.” He calls him a performer par excellence. The kind India needs many more of.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.