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'Congrats Param, you just made sanitation sexy'

By Aditi Phadnis
June 27, 2022 10:24 IST
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No prizes for guessing what the BJP's election campaign is going to be, and who will provide important inputs for it.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi was giving a speech in 2018 when he suddenly paused and said:

'Government officials are usually supposed to work in anonymity. We do not get to know the names of the bureaucrats whose deeds may have won our admiration. But here, I would like to breach the protocol and introduce Parameswaran Iyer to all.'

He then asked the television channel crew to focus their cameras on Iyer, who was seated in the audience.

The colourful, multi-faceted retired IAS officer (1981 Uttar Pradesh cadre), the son of an Indian Air Force officer, toyed with a career in professional tennis but submitted to his parents' persuasion that a 'regular' job might be a better idea.

He applied to DCM but shook his head when Bharat Ram who interviewed him asked what inflation was. Iyer didn't get the job.

He also flunked an interview with ITC in Calcutta and consoled himself with a package of biscuits and cakes from Flury's on Park Street to take home.

He got a job in the Oberoi's hotel management programme for which he was interviewed by P R S 'Biki' Oberoi himself. He quit the hotel job in 10 days, having had enough of cutting vegetables.

There has likely never been a more accidental bureaucrat than Iyer. In his quest for a profession, he took and passed the civil service exams and while waiting for the results, he worked as a sub-editor with The Indian Express when Arun Shourie was the editor. That job was short-lived as well.

But then Iyer figured in the list of successful IAS candidates and joined the so-called iron frame of the country.

He notched up many successes on the way: a stint in the World Bank, both in Delhi and Washington.

His work in India is marked by the Swajal project to get drinking water to every home.

The project took lessons from the Swajal model in Afghanistan's Panjshir valley, and China, where water, unlike India, is not free (he found that even poor families are ready to pay for water as long as the quantity and quality is good).

Iyer was in the World Bank from 1998 to 2006. It taught him about a professional lifestyle without personal assistants, typists and water carriers.

He took a break in 2006 to help his daughter achieve her ambition of becoming a professional tennis player. He was her manager on a two-year road trip across the globe, doing the same for his son. His daughter finally kept tennis as a hobby while getting a PhD in economics from Oxford, while his son got a master's in environmental studies from Columbia.

In 2008, he returned to Lucknow, back to water and sanitation, and later, the forest department. But his family was in the US and he decided to take voluntary retirement from the IAS and return to the World Bank. Again, water and sanitation.

Iyer's life changed on August 15, 2014, when he heard Modi make his first Independence Day speech as prime minister in which he talked about launching a Swachh Bharat mission.

Iyer returned to India to earn the sobriquet Toilet Man, which he cherishes, this time, as a lateral entrant into the steel frame he thought he had quit.

He gave India the concept of the Swachhagrahi: The people who would persuade communities to end open defecation and build toilets.

He did everything that he thought could teach people that building a toilet was really not rocket science or 'unclean' including getting into a pit himself to dig and demonstrate a toilet model.

The event got a huge response, including a mention in Modi's Mann Ki Baat monthly radio show. A World Bank colleague commented: 'Congrats Param, you just made sanitation sexy'.

Little wonder then that Iyer has been given a two-year term at the NITI Aayog as CEO to helm the organisation's many programmes.

Two years takes the government to the next general elections, almost to the day.

No prizes for guessing what the Bharatiya Janata Party's election campaign is going to be, and who will provide important inputs for it.

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Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi
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