THE  Tribune  interview

by Raj Chengappa, Editor-in-Chief
‘We are building the electronic equivalent of roads for the country — soft infrastructure’
— Nandan Nilekani, Chairman, Unique Identification Authority of India

HE was the equivalent of a rock star in India’s giant software business when he was CEO of Infosys, one of the country's most respected companies which he co-founded. Two years ago, Nandan Nilekani, 55, gave up a highly successful career in the private sector and one that made him extraordinarily well-to-do to join the government and serve his country. In July 2009, he took over as the Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India with the rank of a cabinet minister. He has been entrusted with the mammoth task of issuing identity numbers to all of India’s 1.2 billion strong people. Nilekani seems up to it with already over 1 crore people getting their ID numbers within a short span of time. In an exclusive interview to Raj Chengappa, Editor-in-Chief, The Tribune Group of Newspapers, at his New Delhi office Nilekani spoke at length about why he joined the government, the usefulness of having such an ID system for the country and the future of technology. Excerpts:

You were a top gun heading one of the India’s largest software companies and among the country's wealthiest persons. Why did you choose to give up all that and do something for the Indian government?

Nandan Nilekani, Chairman, Unique Identification Authority of India
What we are doing would address the problem of inclusion because the millions of indians without a recognised identity could now get an id number. it would address the challenge of making government expenditure more efficient, reduce diversion and leakages, it could help migrants as they could get a national number they could go around with. there are many spin offs.

I had a very long enriching and satisfying time in Infosys for almost 30 years and, of course, I could have spent the next 10 years in Infosys. But when I got the invitation from the Prime Minister to do something, I felt it was time that I stepped out and did something. We have benefited enormously from the Indian growth story. I went to IIT, got a degree, I was there in the software boom and I have gained a lot from India’s social environment. So I felt maybe a few years of doing things for the country is the right thing. That I should be giving it back in some way and in my view this was a big opportunity because I believe that giving an identity to a person can make a difference to the country. I moved from Bangalore to Delhi, from private sector to the government, from being in a leadership position of a 100,000-person company to build and start my life all over again because this organisation did not exist. When the Union Cabinet approved the creation of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in 2009, I was employee No. 1 of this organisation and I had to start from a scratch, get a team and design this whole thing.

Given your status you could have done so many other things. What attracted you to this project?

It played to my technology background, because this is a very technology-based project. Also I believe that Indian institutions have to be reformed systemically through all the things — process, technology and capability building. It requires a lot of hard work on these things. I could sense that this was something which would address the problem of inclusion because the millions of Indians without a (recognised) identity or ID could now get an ID. It would address the challenge of making government expenditure more efficient, to reduce diversion and leakage; it could help re-engineer public services; it could help migrants because they could get a national number they could go around with. So there are so many spin-offs from this project that it was something I found very exciting.

What does the UIDAI or Aadhar as the project is known seek to do?

I could have spent the next 10 years in Infosys. But when the PM invited me to head UIDAI, I felt it was time I stepped out and did something for the country. we have all benefited enormously from the Indian growth story. I went to IIT. 
I was there in the software boom and I gained a lot from India’s social environment. So I felt I should give back to the country in some way.

The project is simply to give a Unique Identity Number to every resident of India. It is for residents who meet the residency test and this number does not confer anything to you. It is not to confer any nationality. It is just a number that say this is Raj Chengappa No. 123. It is only used to verify somewhere that you are Raj Chengappa and we have used biometrics to make sure that you will get a unique number. We capture all the fingerprints of the 10 fingers and we capture the iris of both the eyes and of course your picture. The biometrics gives us a unique data pattern for everyone. So everyone will have a unique biometric signature. When it is converted into a digital pattern and because of everybody’s unique signature, we can make sure that you don’t get a number twice. So the whole design is that if Raj Chengappa registers in Chandigarh and then if you go to Bangalore and register again by giving Sri Raj and give a biometric, we will catch it because of the fingerprints. Biometric acts as a de-duplicator. So we have a massive, the world’s largest back end engine, for de-duplication (eliminating duplicate information). Nobody has done it on the scale that we plan to do.

What else do you collect in terms of information?

Apart from the biometric, we collect the name, address, date of birth and sex and it is very simple. Whatever the data you give that is the data for the rest of your life and it is in your interest to give the right data and it is self cleaning in the sense you cannot get multiple numbers. Unfortunately in India there are lot of people who don't know their date of birth and they give an approximate date of birth. We have a lot of homeless and they give us the address care of an NGO or a shelter or something. The whole thing is about inclusion. It is about giving millions of Indians an ID with some status. There are no parameters of income, caste, religion, none of those things — just an ID for you.

How does having this ID help?

It helps the people who do not have an ID; it gives them an ID and it is a big thing for such people. The middle-class people usually have driving licences and passports and they do not think such an ID is worthy. But for the poor, especially rural poor who migrate, they do not have ID so they cannot get a ration card, bank account, mobile connection or pension as all these things require IDs. ID is the first part of the process. Secondly, you have been given a nationally mobile ID. I can be a villager in Bihar and get my number and that number is valid in Delhi also. Thirdly, it is an online ID which means the ID can be used to verify my identity online either on the internet or on the mobile phone or if you go to get some particular service, he can authenticate it by using a device to confirm that you are the same person. You can use that for delivering services. Suppose you want him to withdraw money, you can have a business correspondent with a device, authenticate him and he can withdraw money. The important conceptual thing is the number and the number is yours for life.

What is the origin of such an ID and its status in Western countries?

Personally I feel that in the whole debate about corruption, passing a law is only part of the solution. I believe if you systemically  re-engineer the public-services — if food is distributed to all  concerned on time, if money is delivered to bank accounts and you can keep track of it — then you will be able to clean up the system and the whole thing can be sorted out.

All these ID systems came from the West when they started having social welfare and social security programmes. The USA came up with a social security number in 1936, the UK came out with the national insurance number in 1953, Sweden came out with the number in 1947 and all of them were designed to improve the identification of the beneficiaries. Now in India, in the last 10 years, there has been a huge increase in our social spending whether in Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan, NREGA, PDS Reforms and Pensions and with that more and more money or services is going to beneficiaries. Now, it is obvious that you have to make the basic beneficiaries data base correct. By doing this we have removed duplicates and ghosts from our data base. Right now we have enrolled around 1.08 crore people. We hope to enrol half of India's population in the next three years.

Did you have to set up a separate organisation or you work with existing organisations to issue the IDs?

We developed an ecosystem where we worked with our partners and we called them registrars. They include state governments, banks and others. They have enrolment stations around the country and people go to the enrolment station and enrol and it is free. We pay the partners Rs 50 per enrolment which is cost recovery and they in turn pay to the enrolment agency to do this as an activity. We have set up the back end of it. We have set up the computing facility to give numbers.

Who designed the back-up software to host, record and track such massive amount of data?

We gave contracts out to different people but fundamentally we grew the design and strategy. It was like the earlier days in Infosys. We have built a great team of top class professionals here. So we built this and rolled it out in 14 months. Basically, it is a software architecture for people to go to all these enrolment stations, they enrol, that information is sent electronically to our data base centre, we do the de-duplication about the number and send a letter to the person with the number.

How can I access my data?

We are at a fascinating cusp of technology. the combination of cloud-based apps, the rise of smart phones and the arrival of the tablet is causing a huge paradigm shift. everything is in your hand and this is big. it is making people more connected, more aware at a lesser cost and shorter time. the advantage of this revolution is that it is more India compatabile. 

This data is not to be accessed; this is used when you participate in a transaction to authenticate yourself. It is only an authentication infrastructure. We have an electronic device with fingerprints - for example, you will say …I am Raj Chengappa and my number is 1,2,3… you will put your finger there; it will send information online to our database and we will send an answer by saying 'yes' or 'no'. It is an online ID verification system. That is what it does. We are doing pilots on authentication. There are designed eco-system devices which we certify. The process of authentication has just started and we have 18,000 enrolment stations that enrol around 4 lakh a day. We believe that the cost per person for enrolment, because it is a variable cost, would come to Rs 100 to Rs 150. It is very cheap by any international standards. The whole thing would cost us several thousand crores.

What would be the value of such a system to the person and the country?

The value for the system is immense. The social value is incalculable because there are millions of people without an ID. You can use it for applying for a NREGA job and a person can be given a NREGA job card connected to his UID. When he goes to a worksite, you can record his attendance. Along with his UID or Aadhar number, he can have a bank account. Suppose when he earns money, then that money can be directly deposited to his Aadhar-linked bank account. Then when he goes to the bank to withdraw the money, the bank can authenticate it by using the Aadhar number. It helps to automate the workflow of public delivery processes.

What about issues of privacy and the information falling into wrong hands?

First of all the information we collect is very rudimentary just the name, address, date of birth and sex. If you so agree we put in the mobile number and Email ID. And then we do the biometry. We can add a lot more fields but remember if we do that we have to do it 1.2 billion times. So we have designed a simple and lean format. The biometry part is used for de-duplication and the database can only be used for authentication. So I can't call up the database and ask for your address. It's like a black box. In our scheme, everybody keeps their own databases which helps protect privacy. So the banks get their own database, the mobile companies their own database, the Public Distribution System or PDS has its own database, Pensions will have their own database. So that it is actually not one massive database but the data is dispersed. You need to be able to connect all of them to figure out something. This is called federated architecture and it also makes it safe from the privacy point of view.

What has been your personal experience working in government?

I have had a very positive experience. Our own team is energized, motivated and has high integrity. So our organization is focused. We have found that if you have a very clear preposition and if you go and talk to your partners and you convince them of what you are doing, it works. I go to every state and meet with Chief Ministers and Chief Secretaries and I get full cooperation. The Prime Minister is a very solid supporter of this and has backed me right through. So is the Union Finance Minister.

How will Aadhar help in streamlining delivery of government services and plug leakages? There is a huge debate about corruption right now.

This will be a very important feature because what we need is systemic reforms. How do we re-engineer the delivery of public services to be more efficient, equitable and effective? So we will start with identity, the next thing is we are working with the banks to open bank accounts for everyone. When you open a bank account, then you can get payments into that account. So e-payments will start and that will help efficiency because a person getting a pension does not have to meet anyone to get his money and it removes the interface. Then we think the same thing can be used for PDS reforms. Again, with the Food Security Act coming, the PDS reform using the technology would be a big part of it. Here again you have to make sure that the right beneficiaries get it. It is like a platform for everything. Think of what we are building as the electronic equivalent of roads for the country. It is infrastructure but it's a soft infrastructure which can be used for a variety of things.

How will it help cut out graft and plug leakages?

Today when you look at many data bases, for example, some state PDS databases there is a lot of duplication going on. In many municipalities they are paying pensions to people who were no longer alive and that is leakage. That happens because we do not have a strong way of identifying a person and authenticating it. So here it can only go to a person who is alive and authenticated and because you have his number they cannot be two in the data base. You will be able to clean up the system a lot. That is one aspect of it which is reducing the diversion kind of stuff. Secondly, you can design a system to deliver services remotely.

How do you plug leakages in things such as subsidies?

I am heading a task-force appointed by the Finance Minister to go into kerosene, LPG and fertilizer subsidies and our report will be out soon. It would also deal with how to use Aadhaar-based authentication for subsidy entitlement management. For example, let us say that you have a LPG cylinder and that the market value is Rs 600 and the subsidy is Rs 250. So, today when you go and buy, you pay Rs 350 and the subsidy is paid upstream by the oil company and by the government. Tomorrow what will happen is that you will buy it at market price but because you are entitled to a subsidy, you will get Rs 250 in your bank account. Then there will be a full audit of the transaction. Using these approaches you have to do something similar with the land records, PDS and expenditure. Our purpose is that every resident of India has a 'Aadhaar' number for identity, a mobile number for connectivity and a bank account number for transaction of payment. I personally feel that in the whole debate about corruption, passing a law is only part of the solution. I believe if you systemically re-engineer the public services — money is delivered into bank accounts on time, food is distributed to all concerned on time, etc — the whole problem at the point of public interface can be sorted out.

This is a larger question: Given your background, where is technology headed to and how will it impact India?

I think frankly we are at a very fascinating cusp now because the combination of cloud-based applications, the rise of smart phones and the arrival of the tablet is resulting in a huge paradigm shift. I think the advantage of this revolution is that it is much more India compatible. You are going to get cheap phones, cheap tablets, and these will proliferate widely which will coincide with the coming of 3G and broadband. We are at the cusp of having very innovative capabilities. Everything is in your hand and this is big. It is making people much more connected, much more aware, at lesser cost and at a shorter time. It is creating an instantaneous world. If something happens anywhere, everybody knows it in 10 minutes. It's the compression of space and time. It's almost instantaneous communications and only now are we beginning to comprehend the complexities of that. The revolutions we are seeing sweeping the Arab world means government have to be more agile and responsive to the people. In India, we are already tapping into such communication through smart phones and the like and that means we need to create more responsive systems.




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