A personal chronicle of Swachh Bharat Mission | Opinion

As I leave after four-and-a-half years of executing SBM, there are achievements, lessons, and future goals
A worker sweeps an area near a statue of Mahatma Gandhi inside the Rashtriya Swachhata Kendra, an interactive experience centre on the Swachh Bharat Mission, Rajghat, New Delhi, August 11, 2020(PTI)
A worker sweeps an area near a statue of Mahatma Gandhi inside the Rashtriya Swachhata Kendra, an interactive experience centre on the Swachh Bharat Mission, Rajghat, New Delhi, August 11, 2020(PTI)
Updated on Aug 20, 2020 08:28 PM IST
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ByParameswaran Iyer

I vividly remember the first time I met Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi. It was the April 21, 2016, Civil Services Day. There was an evening reception at the Rashtrapati Bhawan Convention Centre, where my Indian Administrative Service (IAS) batchmate, Hasmukh Adhia, introduced me to the PM. I greeted him with a namaste and blurted out something about how much of an honour it was for me to meet him. With a straight face he responded, “Aap wohi hai na jo IAS se bhaag kar bahar chalegaye the? (Aren’t you the one who left the IAS and escaped?)” I was stumped, but, he then smiled and said: “I know that you have asked for an appointment with me — I will meet you soon”.

I had been at the World Bank for some years after taking voluntary retirement from the Indian Administrative Service, when in late 2015, I happened to visit Delhi and meet the Cabinet secretary. He informed me that the incumbent secretary of the ministry of drinking water and sanitation (MDWS) had recently resigned, and that the government was considering a domain expert as a replacement for her. He asked if I was interested in the job.

It took a few moments for his words to register. This was more than a dream come true. I remembered the urge I felt to participate in the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) the day I heard PM announce it from the ramparts of Red Fort in 2014. My wife and I were at home in Hanoi, Vietnam, and watching the new PM’s first Independence Day speech. Now I was being asked to lead SBM.

I was fortunate in being selected for the job and became the first-ever lateral entry ex-IAS officer to become a secretary to the government. There were a few discordant notes from my former IAS colleagues about a technical “outsider” being appointed at such a senior level, but since my former IAS batchmates were also secretaries at that time, at least I was not breaking the civil service hierarchy!

After the brief encounter with PM at Rashtrapati Bhawan, I got a call from his office a couple of days later to schedule an appointment with him, just as he had promised. At that meeting, I shared with him our proposal to focus the goal of the programme on making the country open-defecation-free (ODF) by launching a behaviour change programme to get people to use toilets, in parallel with a massive toilet construction programme.

In the end, I left the room with the PM’s inspirational words ringing in my ears: “Jaiye, aur Bharat ko swachh banaiye. (Go and make India clean)”.

I relinquish my post a week after Independence Day this year to go back to the United States (US) and spend some quality time with my family. I look back at my four-and-a-half years on the job with a lot of satisfaction over what SBM has been able to achieve, and gratitude for being given the chance to do this.

To think that in 2014, India contributed to well over half of the world’s open defecation burden with over 600 million open defecators, to becoming open-defecation-free in 2019, is a testimony to what can be achieved if a people rally behind a cause. No praise is enough for the PM’s announcement of that huge, audacious goal, being the wind at our backs, and for being the SBM’s communicator-in-chief.

Along the way, I have learned valuable lessons on management and programme delivery. This programme has reinforced the importance of achieving goal-congruence, with every part of the chain aligned to a common goal. It has highlighted the need for a team of believers to effectively execute any large and complex challenge. Believers punch above their weight and made the goal seem less audacious.

It has also taught me the importance of end-to- end communication, with all stakeholders and at all times. I have learnt that keeping your superiors and critics informed of your good work is as important as communicating with your customers. It has demonstrated the power of the collective, and that when a programme is democratised, it can achieve more than any expectations. It has highlighted the importance of objective evaluation of progress and using these measurements to improve delivery at all stages. And, most of all, it has taught me that there is no such thing as mission accomplished. Follow-through for sustaining gains is as, if not more, important than achieving the gains in the first place.

I leave behind an able team of officers who will take charge of the second phase of SBM which focuses on ODF sustainability and solid and liquid waste management. The Jal Jeevan Mission has its own enormously ambitious goal of delivering piped water supply to all households by 2024. With the systems in place for the successful implementation of both these programmes, I am confident that the teams will achieve even greater heights for the water and sanitation sector in India and get us even more global recognition for our path-breaking transformative programmes.

My journey has been nothing short of a dream come true. It has been a roller coaster ride, with a thrill a minute. I leave with the satisfaction that Team SBM, at the national, state, district and village levels, put in a 100% effort to achieve the PM’s goal. I leave with gratitude for this amazing, life-changing opportunity.

Parameswaran Iyer is secretary, department of drinking water and sanitation, Government of India
The views expressed are personal
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Monday, January 24, 2022