IN THE World Bank, everyone calls this program manager and lead water and sanitation specialist as Param. His full name is Parameswaran Iyer, a 1981 batch Uttar Pradesh cadre IAS who took voluntary retirement about seven years ago. In a rare instance, the Narendra Modi government in an order dated February 3, roped in this IAS-turned sanitation specialist as union secretary in charge of the ministry of drinking water and sanitation, the agency that anchors the Centre’s ambitious programme of Swachh Bharat Mission, or Clean India Mission. Iyer’s appointment will be on a contract basis for…two years. It’s also expected that this appointment may encourage many other former IAS officers currently specializing in key sectors such as health, infrastructure, finance, banking etc. either in India or abroad, to explore a second innings in the corridors.
The government, in fact, has realized that Swachh Bharat has not been able to make a huge impact though the total number of toilets being constructed across the country has gone up in the last one and half years. The Clean India Mission was initially driven by a Gujarat cadre IAS of 1980 batch — Ms Vijay Laxmi Joshi, the then secretary in the ministry of drinking water and sanitation, but her sudden decision to take voluntary retirement from the government in November last year, created a huge vacuum there. Initially, the secretary’s post was handed over to the then rural development secretary Jugal Kishore Mohapatra on an adhoc basis.
In the backdrop of an ongoing generalist versus specialist debate, where many argue that IAS officers, the generalists, take charge of many a specialist’s job, Iyer’s appointment has given a new lease of life to the debate of need to appoint specialists for key government missions. Yes, Iyer was an IAS officer but he has worked in water and sanitation departments for nearly two decades if his experiences in the government and World Bank in water and sanitation work are combined, undoubtedly making him an expert in the field.
As an IAS, he worked in the union ministries of defence and textiles in1980s, and was then collector and district magistrate in UP’s Bijnor district.
But he developed real expertise in water and sanitation during his eight years long innings in United Nation’s World Food Program (1998-2006) where he had worked as a senior water and sanitation specialist. For him, it was a government-approved foreign assignment and he could continue his rank as director to government of India during that posting. But he did not come back to the government and instead, continued working abroad. He finally took voluntary retirement from IAS in June, 2009 after DoPT reminded him of his failure to join back the service.
In the World Bank, Iyer has been working on water supply and sanitation issues since June 2012. Currently based in Hanoi, Vietnam, he was previously posted in Washington on Egypt and Lebanon and prior to that in the Bank’s Water Anchor. “He has led two Bank operations in Vietnam using the new Program for Results lending instrument and is currently working on a third focusing on sanitation in the Northern Mountains and Central Highlands regions”, according to his profile posted in the World Bank site. Undoubtedly, Iyer has a key role to play in Vietnam's sanitation drive. Vietnam has set the target of making it an open defecation free nation by 2025.
So, will Iyer in his second innings in the government expedite the Centre’s mission of constructing more and more toilets in India? If you read his published articles on sanitation, Iyer may change the Swachh Bharat approach. After all, there have been news reports saying how in UP villages, people prefer open defecation than using their newly-built toilets. “The biggest lesson learned so far in Vietnam and other countries is that eliminating open defecation is not driven by construction of toilets. It is driven by changing behavior at the community level based on quality, evidence-based interventions. What is also clear is that approaches must be tailored to the specific context with careful consideration of local factors such as ethnicity,” wrote Iyer in a November 2014 blog for the World Bank’s site.Just wait and watch. Swachh Bharat Mission may soon get a Vietnamese twist.