'Toilet man of India': Journo-turned-civil servant wears this tag proudly

Parameswaran Iyer, Secretary, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation,
He doesn’t mind the epithet “toilet man of India”, but the most memorable years of Parameswaran Iyer’s life were when he quit his World Bank job to become a full-time road manager for his daughter Tara, a professional tennis player-turned economist. For two years, he was on the road, coaching his kid, journaling his diary and living the sportsman’s life with all the victories and defeats. “It was the best time...Those two years I spent with Tara... I will never get that chance again,” Iyer says as we make our way in the restaurant where we are meeting for lunch. (This meeting was conducted before the lockdown was announced.)

Son of a marathon runner and a sports person himself — he still runs five kms a day at least four times a week — Iyer has donned many hats in his long career. Before he cleared the civil services exam, he had been a journalist for five months at the Indian Express with Arun Shourie as his editor. 

Iyer has chosen the Sagar Ratna at The Ashok hotel. Probably because his son had praised the masala dosa he had here with his grandfather many months ago. We find the quietest corner of the restaurant away from the hustle and bustle of all the lunch-goers.

And surely he decides to go for the good ol’ masala dosa, though he is game for experimentation... with the onion version. I don’t give it much thought and just follow his lead.

I can’t resist but bring up that famous picture of Iyer cleaning the twin-pit toilets. He says jokingly, “It is not a great lunchtime conversation but it is bread and butter for me.” The moment was exhilarating for him. “It was a small step towards breaking the stigma but also to demonstrate how great the technology is.”

Ever since, Iyer has chaperoned many men to empty the twin pit toilets — from Amitabh Kant, CEO, NITI Aayog to Bollywood star Akshay Kumar. He even took his son and daughter for one such trip. What do they think about what he does, I wonder.

“They probably use more colloquial words for what I do,” he says. On a serious note, he says, they find his work quite powerful. “They were struck by how providing a toilet particularly to a girl or a woman can actually transform their lives. My kids there are quite proud of the fact that I’m involved in a programme which is actually helping people, particularly women and girls on the ground,” he says.

The feeling of pride is mutual. He shares how his daughter has turned from a professional tennis player into a macro-economist for the International Monetary Fund and his son, an environmental economist, has gone back to tennis as the director for business development at his old tennis academy.  

Iyer’s own career took an interesting turn recently when he got an extension to take on the next big challenge — of providing drinking water to all households by 2024.

Iyer was on a mini-holiday with his wife in Port Blair when he received the news, notwithstanding the poor connectivity in the region. “I am still pinching myself every day. Is it real? Because I never thought I would ever be in this job... It is a window of opportunity and we need to make every day count,” Iyer says.

And he does, quite literally. Since he became the secretary for drinking water and sanitation, he has put up a whiteboard in his office. “My wife told me — when I was joining initially on a two year contract — that you’ve got a big job ahead of you. And so why don't you put up a whiteboard in your office and write down the number of days you’ve spent on the job every day. And also the number of days you have left to remind you that you have a lot of work left,” Iyer said.

Later he added a few more figures to his personal dashboard, such as the number of swachhagrahis, districts and villages that became open-defecation free. For many who came to visit him, it was impossible to guess what all those numbers signified. Iyer is now ready to start a water-related counter onto that whiteboard of his.

Surely, leading the Prime Minister’s pet projects must be a high pressure business, especially delivering water and sanitation in a country the size of India. For Iyer, that is the fun part. “I’ve always enjoyed challenges where the goal appears to be difficult. That’s the exciting part of the job. You are not doing something which is easy or kind of routine... This is a revolution.”

By now, the restaurant has become a bit crowded and a particularly loud bunch decides to have a conversation right behind us. As our not-so-quiet-corner-anymore starts to fill in, we are wiping down the last bits of the sumptuous dosa off our plates.

The finger bowls are here and Iyer is not too keen on a dessert. But, I still want to know more of his story. We settle for a nice hot cup of filter coffee.

Our conversation shifts to his childhood. I find it absolutely fascinating that Iyer had his early education in Soviet Russia in the school number 47, along with his two elder sisters, in the height of the Cold War. That was when he was eight and his father was posted in Moscow as the air attaché to the embassy in 1967.

Iyer says he was lucky to have studied in a special school where they taught English from class one, unlike from class five in regular schools. Although because of Russian school norms, he had to enrol again in class one. Iyer has fond memories of skiing in what was then known as the Lenin Hills, travelling across Europe. When his father got posted in Chandigarh, he managed to get an admission straight into class seven, jumping class four, five and six.

“I had an interesting experience which I joke about sometimes. There are some gaps in my education in terms of basic history and geography,” Iyer says.

Well, Iyer must have been a sharp student having cleared his civil services exams in one attempt and a very small preparation window. “My father was my coach, it was his idea I take the civil services exam. I wanted to become a tennis professional and played for about six, seven months. Lost the first round everywhere and decided that’s not for me.”  

He quit his journalism job, even though his editor tried to convince him that he was giving up a good career opportunity for the IAS.

And rest, as they say, is history.

Our filter coffee is all done and Iyer’s phone has already rang a few times. As we wrap up, my guest extends me an invitation to join him in clearing a twin pit toilet next time. We shake on it — back when this lunch meeting took place, we were still shaking hands without worrying about the virus!

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