Parameswaran Iyer is an Indian civil servant and the current CEO of Niti Aayog.
He entered the Indian Administrative Service in 1981 and took voluntary retirement in 2009 to join the water and sanitation initiatives at the World Bank. He served as the Global Lead for Strategic Initiatives in the World Bank’s Water Global Practice.
Parameswaran Iyer was Secretary to the Government of India in the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation in New Delhi during 2016- 2020 and led the implementation of the national flagship $20-billion Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission) which delivered access to safe sanitation to 550 million people.
At the helm of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), he played a leading role in India’s stupendous achievement of becoming Open Defecation Free (ODF) in 2019.
But Iyer is not a typical bureaucrat. He has had a far-from-usual career – from cracking the IAS to becoming a globetrotting World Bank technocrat, to playing the role of a coach to his professional tennis-playing daughter, to finally returning to India and leading the SBM.
Iyer, a sportsperson himself, was often referred to as the ‘Toilet Man of India’ for his role in leading the Swachh Bharat Mission on ground to provide sanitation cover to all rural households.
He worked at the United Nations too for a few years as a senior rural water sanitation specialist. He is also a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad in management practices.
He has over 25 years of experience in the water and sanitation sector and has worked in many countries, including Vietnam, China, Egypt and Lebanon and the USA in Washington for the World Bank.
Iyer, who is a Malayali and has roots in Kozhikode, has also authored a book titled ‘Method in the Madness – Insights from My Career as an Insider-Outsider-Insider’ about his life experience inside and outside the Government.
Iyer was born in Srinagar and his father was an Indian Air Force officer. He was educated at The Doon School in Dehradun, and then attended St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. As a student of St Stephen’s college, he represented India at the Junior Davis Cup in Tennis. He then got a one-year exchange scholarship at Davidson College in North Carolina.
Iyer’s modus operandi to achieve the strict goals under the Swachh Bharat Mission, the country-wide sanitation campaign to eliminate open defecation and improve solid waste management (building 110 million toilets in five years), was unconventional and “non-bureaucratic” which increased the efficiency of delivery and led to the success of the program.
In 2019, India was declared as ‘Open Defecation Free’ on Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. India had by then built 100 million toilets in about 0.6 million villages, and another 6.3 million in its cities. A Unicef study estimated that a household in an ODF village saves an average of up to Rs 50,000 annually on such expenses as treatment of illnesses. The biggest success of the programme was to bring behavioural change at grassroots level through awareness campaigns and mass contact programmes.
During his stint at the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Iyer once entered a twin-pit toilet at a Telangana village in 2017 to empty it. The goal was to help residents overcome the taboo of cleaning toilets. This led Prime Minister Narendra Modi to call the act remarkable in one of the episodes of his Mann Ki Baat programmes.
The Prime Minister singled him out for praise on another occasion, at a function addressing ‘Swachh Bharat Mission’ volunteers in Bihar’s Champaran in 2018.
Iyer has impressed everyone in the Government with his deep understanding of the water and sanitation discipline as also his exemplary programme-implementation skills. He was thus given the additional charge of another of the Prime Minister’s pet projects, the Jal Jeevan Mission, with the goal of providing piped water supply to all households by 2024 through integrated water supply management at the grassroots.
In 2020, Iyer had resigned from the position and returned to the United States to join the World Bank and be close to his family. He served as the CEO and Manager of the 2030 Water Resources Group, a public-privatecivil society partnership hosted by the World Bank, Washington DC.
However, he is back in the Government and now has the task of steering the Niti Aayog to new heights.
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