Departing from the established practice, the Narendra Modi government on Wednesday appointed a World Bank expert on water sanitation to head the government’s drinking water and sanitation department on a contract for two years.
The department is responsible for drinking water supply and building toilets as part of the Swachh Bharat campaign.
Parameshwaran Iyer is the first specialist to be laterally inducted as a secretary in a department related to the social sector on a contract. So far, the government only brings in outside experts to head scientific departments such as the department of biotechnology, leaving the rest in the hands of a career civil servant.
Parameshwaran Iyer, 57, too had started out as a civil servant. This was in 1981 when he cleared the civil services examination and joined the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Iyer started out in Uttar Pradesh before coming to Delhi to serve in the ministries of defence and textiles. On his return to UP, he was appointed the district magistrate of Bijnor and then, served in the rural development ministry.
His big break, however, came in 1998 when he was sent to work abroad as a senior rural water sanitation specialist with the United Nations World Food Programme. When he overstayed abroad, the government issued him notice for unauthorised absence. Iyer returned soon after but quit his job around 2009 to work on sanitation projects abroad.
A lead water and sanitation specialist in the Hanoi office of the World Bank, Iyer had spent the last few years to help Vietnam achieve the target of eradicating open defecation by 2025.
Back home, he will have a much more ambitious target to achieve.
Modi had announced the Swachh Bharat campaign to eliminate the practice of people relieving themselves in the open by the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth in 2019. An official suggested the move to induct an outside expert was a reflection of the PMO’s assessment that the business-as-usual approach of the civil services would not work.