Updated: March 7, 2021 7:53:30 am
By Jayant Dasgupta
Author: Parameswaran Iyer
Publisher: Harper Collins
Price: Rs 499
The intriguingly titled book Method in Madness provides a fascinating account of Parameswaran Iyer’s interesting life and multiple careers spanning 40 years. The book starts with Iyer, a promising tennis player at the collegiate level in India returning from a one-year tennis scholarship in the US, during which he had the opportunity to train at the famous Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Iyer recounts with candour his successive attempts at a career as a professional tennis player, a hotelier and a newspaper correspondent — with varying degrees of success, before taking a shot at the IAS examination with scant preparation. He makes it to the IAS and is so excited on getting the news that he jumps with joy — only to hit his head against the low ceiling.
The madness in the title comes partly from the sacrifices of the tennis-mad family to provide top-class coaching to the Iyer children, Tara and Venkat, both gifted players. The madness goes to the extent of Iyer quitting his secure World Bank job to become the tour manager for his children’s international tournaments. He keeps copious notes of their performances. In emulating a seasoned coach’s tips to a budding player, Iyer’s book is full of pro-tips on lessons learnt from real-life problems — some serious, some not so. Here is a sample: “A smart survival policy is to keep your immediate boss in good humour even if what he or she proposes is a bit mad! Live to fight another day.”
The other part of the madness is, perhaps, the single-minded pursuit of an objective, however difficult or unattainable it might appear to be. A good case in point is the Swachh Bharat campaign, which Iyer helmed from March 2016, and which had the seemingly impossible target of providing sanitation to 550 million people by October 2, 2019. The book describes the wide array of methods used to achieve this Herculean objective, both in terms of the construction of toilets and the infinitely more difficult part — to bring about a behavioural change in people to use them.
That Iyer got the opportunity of coming back into the government as an insider after having quit it to join the World Bank the second time around, made him an outsider to the establishment. With self-deprecating humour, he quotes the Prime Minister’s remarks to him when they meet for the first time after he takes over as secretary, drinking water and sanitation — “Aap wohi hai na jo IAS se bhag kar bahar chale gaye they?” Though taken by surprise, he marvels at the PM’s sharp memory.
Iyer talks of keeping the “village elders” in the loop, perhaps, to hint at some of the tribal ties that still persist in the steel frame of the government. He acknowledges the valuable advice that he received at various turns from members of his old fraternity of civil servants as well as the insights he absorbed from politicians of various hues, including the redoubtable Mayawati.
Iyer describes the multipronged strategy to achieve behavioural change among the client group as well as to enthuse the pivotal government functionaries, that is, the district magistrates. He seizes the opportunity of utilising the popularity of film stars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar and Aamir Khan to get across key messages. The personal commitment of the PM to the programme and his willingness to lend his time for various functions are also mobilised effectively to lend added momentum to the cause.
Iyer does not gloss over his gaffes, like misspelling Bachchan’s second name or the link he sought to draw between open defecation and the spread of COVID in a publicity campaign which had to be pulled off in a hurry because of unintended consequences.
The icing on the cake for Iyer and his dedicated team was not only achieving an open defecation-free India on Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birthday (2019) but the lakhs of lives saved from gastrointestinal diseases — mainly of children below the age of five, the substantial savings in out-of-pocket expenses on healthcare, especially for the poor, and the huge employment generated by the campaign.
The book is fast-paced and easy, boyish in its enthusiasm but sedate in its conclusions. It is a must-read not only for budding civil servants but also management practitioners and anybody who wants to have a ringside view of the biggest behavioural change campaign ever tried in the world.
(Jayant Dasgupta is former ambassador of India to the WTO)
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