Apr 08, 2021


Rohini Nilekani moderates a discussion on delivering large-scale transformational programs, impact on the ground, and the implementation of such programmes in a large and diverse country like India. The discussion draws on the learnings from the Swachh Bharat Mission, the world’s largest successful behaviour change programme, which drew over 55 crore rural Indians out of open defecation. The discussion covers “Method in the Madness: Insights from the career of an insider-outsider-insider”, the memoir of Parameswaran Iyer recently published by HarperCollins. In the book, he reflects on the unique path he has tread – from cracking the prestigious Indian Administrative Service to becoming a globe-trotting World Bank technocrat, to playing the role of a coach to his professional tennis-playing children, to finally returning to India and implementing the Swachh Bharat Mission.

This is an edited version of a discussion on delivering large-scale transformational programs, impact on the ground, and the implementation of such programmes in India, moderated by Rohini Nilekani. The discussion draws on the learnings from the Swachh Bharat Mission which drew over 55 crore rural Indians out of open defecation, and “Method in the Madness: Insights from the Career of an Insider-Outsider-Insider”, the memoir of Parameswaran Iyer published by HarperCollins. In addition to Parameswaran Iyer, the other speakers were LK Atheeq and Sunil Yajaman.


Fair But Not Equal

In his memoir, Parameswaran Iyer is able to share his insights which come from a long career and the experiences he has had both in the government, outside of the government, and as a road manager and tennis coach to his daughter, Tara. He says the book may be particularly helpful for young professionals and people embarking on a career. His own experiences with the Swachh Bharat story is included with insights into how to deliver large-sale programs and what happens when implementing them on the ground. Along with the lessons he has learnt and some of the mistakes he’s made, Param also includes practical pro tips that he picked up from different people.

One of them is from his daughter’s tennis coach, Vesa Ponkka, who said, “I treat everyone fairly, but not equally.” The reasoning behind this was that out of the 30 aspiring tennis players that he was training, the coach would watch to see the degree of effort that the children were putting in. Depending on this, he would give more time to the ones who were putting in more effort. He gave all of them an equal opportunity to train but he also saw who had more potential and motivation to excel and paid attention to them. Param believes that this applies everywhere – in the public sector and the private sector, we should treat everyone fairly and give everyone a chance, but people who put in more effort and who do better need to be given more time and should be appreciated and recognised. He applied this principle in the ministry as well as the states, so states that were doing better in Swachh Bharat got more attention, technical assistance, and more funds.

There were many forks in the road for Param and one of the things he learnt early on was to seize the moment. Things will change and disruptions will occur, so it’s important to be able to examine the opportunities and not let anything pass us by. Another crucial aspect of learning for him was the experiences he was able to get in different sectors and with different organisations. The IAS gives you a unique opportunity to experience different sectors and kinds of jobs. In order to have a competitive advantage, it’s important to get a kind of broad area specialisation as well as in-depth knowledge. When Tara decided that she wanted to play professional tennis, that was an opportunity that couldn’t be postponed and so Param decided to give up his job at the World Bank and become her road manager. He says that the two years that he spent travelling with his son and daughter was absolutely unique and something he’ll never regret. After they both went back to college, Param decided to get back to the government and joined the Mayawati government in UP. 

Sunil Yajaman has known Param for 25 years and remembers meeting him and Tara in Delhi while he was the national coach with the All India Tennis Association. Although Tara was very talented, she had an injury which made a further tennis career unlikely. However, there are so many more like her who may benefit from more public support and better infrastructure from the government in India. Sunil is currently the Joint Secretary of the Karnataka State Lawn Tennis Association and confirms that this is a big problem with sports in the country. In the US or Europe, every school has a wonderful infrastructure and community courts that the government has built. If every district can have two tennis courts, badminton courts, a cricket ground, and a football ground, we could see a lot more rising sports stars, he says. Missions like Khelo India are attempting to decentralise this idea and create sports infrastructure at the local level. Param points out that we also need to develop world-class coaches who understand the game and make it a career worth having. Along with the infrastructure and coaches, we also need more encouragement for sports other than cricket. It’s worth investing in all sports and getting kids from a very young age to participate will produce a lot of champions.


In governance, we have seen how Presidents bring in their people, who may go back into the corporate sector and then return later. In terms of this revolving door method and bringing more expertise into government, Param argues that it’s important to open up to lateral entrants and bring in new expertise but also allow IAS officers and civil servants to get more exposure outside themselves. It should be a two-way street where they should be able to work in the private sector as well as at international organisations, of course with some ground rules in case of a conflict of interest. Param thinks that this movement in and out of the government, will actually bring in a lot of new ideas. As an outsider and insider, he believes that he was able to leverage his knowledge, contacts, and understanding of what works in districts and states to make a difference. Therefore, in state subjects like sanitation and water, it’s important to have people who have worked in the state and who understand the system as well as bringing in people laterally who can share their expertise. 

It will not be easy to shift this culture, especially when there is apprehension and resentment from the civil service officers who have been working in districts and states, and do have years of experience. Any change will always result in some level of apprehension. However, civil servants are also starting to think about specialising themselves and developing expertise in one particular sector so that they would be the natural selection when missions like Swachh Bharat arise. LK Atheeq, who has been implementing the Swachh Bharat programme alongside Param since 2018, notes that criticism for outsiders among the civil service is short-lived as long as the right person is chosen and they start delivering results. 

It also behoves the person who comes from outside to leave their arrogance at the door, create a collegiate atmosphere, and respect the knowledge of the civil servants around them. So it also depends on the behavior of the person who comes in at that lateral level. In his memoir, Param describes how he created this space for others, allowed them to innovate, and brought in a culture of collaboration. The Swachh Bharat Mission was his biggest challenge – one of the largest programs of its kind in the world and with  a very short deadline to stop open defecation throughout the country. During his meeting with the Prime Minister, Param recalls the last thing the Prime Minister told him, which was “Jaiye aur Bharat ko swachh banaiye.” It was a large mission to undertake.

A Massive Challenge

The Prime Minister made a very bold announcement on 15th August 2014, that in five years, on the 150th birth-anniversary of Gandhiji, the country will be open defecation free. There were 600 million people in India who were practicing open defecation who made up 60% of the world’s one billion open defecators. If India didn’t solve this problem, then Sustainable Development Goal 6.2 wouldn’t have been achieved. The scale was huge and although a lot of work had happened in sanitation over the last 70 years, the issue never received that level of political leadership, says Param. It was a massive challenge and with five years to achieve it, the central issue was in changing behavior all the way down to the village level. Of course, a lot of toilets had to be built as well. More than 100 million toilets were built, but the focus was on behavior change. 550 million people in rural India had to change their behavior, and the sanitation coverage had to grow from 39% to close to 100% in a short period of time. 

It was young officers like Atheeq who took up this challenge and proved to be the backbone of this program. In UP, Param says, the formula for success is PM, CM, DM, and the VM i.e. the Village Mukhiya, the Sarpanch. These are the people who made this a success, along with the Development Administration at the grassroots level, the leadership and innovation of the young collectors, and the CEOs in Karnataka and other states. So the team of Swachh Bharat was at the scale of 700 collectors, chief executive officers, school children, 250,000 Sarpanches, etc. Scale had to be dealt with and in a short period of time, a lot of energy was brought in at the local level. At the government level, it was about travelling, motivating, and encouraging friendly competition, with backing of the Prime Minister. This was his flagship program so Param made sure that they leveraged the Prime Minister’s leadership at a political, administrative, and local level.

There have been valid criticisms of the mission, especially in terms of the 98% success rate that the government has confirmed versus the ground reality for many families in rural India. Param agrees that in sanitation, there will always be gaps and the country is not open defecation free, but they have begun working on a new program and hope to sustainably build capacity in communication. The process of verifying the success rate was based on people self-declaring that they were open defecation free – every village sat in an open meeting and decided whether they were at a point to declare it for themselves. There was a process of verification done through independent large-scale surveys. Interestingly, in areas where there was much more community cohesion, it became a matter of pride. There was a Gaurav Yatra in one village when they declared themselves open defecation free.

Part of Param’s job was to reach out to the critics and hear what they had to say. One of these people was Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who claimed that building toilets was being prioritised over behavioral changes. When Param met him and asked how we could make that shift, he suggested focusing on village-level motivators, which the Prime Minister named Swachhagrahis. Pratap said, “If you can have one village motivator on average per village who are trained in community approaches to sanitation, then you’ve got a compelling story to tell because you’ve got boots on the ground. People directly interacting with the community can convince them why it is important to have a toilet. The whole community is affected and it’s got economic and health benefits.” So they put in more effort to create and train local Swachhagrahis. It was an honest effort and although there were some gaps, Param argues that overall he is quite confident that the results were robust.

The issue of caste and manual scavenging is difficult to ignore when it comes to sanitation in India. We still have manual scavenging, even though our laws abolish it. In rural India this is less of an issue, says Param. One of the things they ensured was that all members of the community, irrespective of caste, were included in the conversation. When they did the village mapping, they tried to ensure coverage for all bastis – Bihar for example mandated that unless the Dalit basti was covered first, they wouldn’t proceed to other places. Param points out that he entered the toilet pit himself, precisely to break this stigma. Twin-pit technology also helps with this issue. The idea is that one pit works while the other is closed, and when one fills up you divert to the second pit and wait for a year and a half until the compost is safe and pathogen-free. At the village level, this was an inclusive process where everyone was drawn in and unless all households had access to a toilet, the village could not declare itself open defecation free. Param argues that the issue of caste was therefore addressed through community cohesion and the entire village being included in the open defecation free movement. In urban contexts, with the manual evacuation of septic tanks, there is more awareness and a push to replace this with mechanical evacuation.

Failures and Successes 

From this experience, Param has learnt the value of the four P’s – political leadership, public financing, partnerships, and people’s participation. The government invested $20 billion in a public good like sanitation, they had partnerships with NGOs and grassroots organisations, and at the bottom line, it had to be a people’s movement. They had a critical window open with both political leadership and financing, and it would have been a wasted opportunity if they had not delivered on this program, he says.  

To Atheeq, there were certainly some pitfalls that would occur with any mission-driven project of this scale. If you’re focusing on results and targets, there is an incentive for people to cook figures at the ground level, he says. But there are also issues of certain serious constraints. Space and water are two big constraints. Many politicians and journalists have asked what the point of toilets is when there is no water available. We have also found that in villages in Karnataka, there are still gaps in coverage where people don’t have enough space to build a toilet or put in the pits. There continue to be issues and we have to continue to work towards it, he says. The cultural idea of going out into an open field instead of a constrained space still carries a lot of meaning for people, especially in the rural areas. But the younger generation and women have understood that toilets are important not just for privacy, dignity, and security, but also in terms of health. The men and the older generations are not yet changing their habits, therefore the campaign for a behaviour change has to be a continuous one. With the campaign that was started in 2003 based on the Water and Sanitation Program of the World Bank, the goal was to instill the idea that building toilets is not enough, people need to have open defecation free status. This is crucial, says Atheeq, because even if 10% of the village defecates, the pathogens travel through the entire village and therefore we’re not achieving any results.

Changing the behaviour of 500 million people sounded like an impossible challenge but Param learnt that you need to deal with scale with scale, and began involving school children. When he visited East Champaran, where Gandhiji started the Indigo movement 100 years ago, school girls from the Turkaulia Block were marching in the streets and saying, “Mujhe shauchalay chahiye.” They demanded it. School children began putting pressure on their teachers and parents, and that mobilisation of school kids was a huge factor in bringing about behaviour change. Another method which conventionally has not worked is community-led total sanitation. It hadn’t worked in the past because there was no political leadership. However, when the Prime Minister put his weight behind the program, states knew that resources were coming and it was a powerful push which made all the difference, says Param. One solution that they have found for the space issue is to build a series of toilets on public land. They mark them as private toilets with the keys handed over to a single family so that they can use it. The maintenance of community toilets is a challenge because unless there is a mechanism for proper maintenance and the Gram Panchayats take responsibility for maintaining those toilets, it does not make sense to build them. 

The pandemic has put the spotlight on health and the need to increase public expenditure in the sector. It was Rahm Emanuel who said, “Never let a crisis go to waste” and Param believes that this is an opportunity to refocus on health in India. Not only do we need to increase the expenditure, we have to also utilise it more effectively. Better systems and better capacity has to be created. Fortunately, India is well-positioned for this, he says, since we have the best electoral system in the world and the capacity to roll out vaccinations better than anyone else. In many ways, water sanitation and hygiene has served as a kind of pre-vaccine vaccine during the pandemic. Handwashing with soap is now being internalised by many, and the pandemic will certainly help us reframe our priorities regarding health.

Finally Param notes that when we talk about success and failure, he has learnt to “treat those two imposters just the same” as Rudyard Kipling advises in his poem, ‘If’. There will be failures and successes, and we must take them both in our stride. Win or lose, we should continue to enjoy the game. 



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