May l 2010
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The Uniqueness of being Nandan Nilekani:

The man who inspired the slogan "the world is flat" has a small revision to make in the light of recent events. "The world has got flattened," says Nandan Nilekani, chairman of Indian technology giant Infosys. In fact, Nilekani's cheerleading for globalisation and capitalism is surprisingly refreshing. Shorn of the guilt and insecurity that dogs most western business leaders today, he is unabashed about the advantages of open markets.

"We should not throw out the baby with the bath water," he says. "Of course there are people who say this is what happens if you do too much economic liberalisation and therefore we shouldn't do it any more, but [in India] we lived for many years under a very stultifying socialist regime and have seen what it is like. "I don't think we should throw out the advantages of markets and entrepreneurship, the energy, the job creation, the innovations.” "There are a lot of areas where we have too much bureaucracy. It takes too long for businesses to start, too long for them to shut down, and there are a lot of customs problems."There is something in our public systems and our public governance that is failing us."

Instead, British business increasingly seems to be turning to India for answers. Companies such as BT, BP and Tesco are major Infosys clients. Nilekani is a big fan of Lakshmi Mittal and Ratan Tata, who now controls British Steel and Jaguar Land Rover.

Unsurprisingly, he also thinks IT outsourcing has only just begun. The big business today is to integrate admin services for retailers who want to sell through shops, the internet, and call centres all at once. "We help them do that in a seamless fashion, so for example I can place the order on the internet and pick it up from the store when I come in." The next big trend he says is "wireless, real-time computing, so you can put sensors everywhere and catch things changing as they happen. It allows us to make things smarter because we know exactly where each product is in the supply chain."

If this sounds dull, it is. But it is in grinding out such efficiencies in the service sector that the world economy will learn to grow again. And just as China is increasingly the world leader in working out how to make better widgets, India is working out better ways to stop companies drowning in paperwork.

Nilekani is boundlessly, but not naively, optimistic about India's potential to rise above doing the rest of the world's dull stuff. His theory of development is rooted in business-speak: "When you start thinking about people as human capital you realise that human capital is only developed when you invest in it, and therefore the government needs to make health and education its top priorities. If you have all this capital you have to make sure it is used well."

What has been the progress been on joining UIDIA so far?

I was the first person to join. Within a week, my colleague Ram Sewak Sharma joined as the DG (director general) and then others started joining us. Now we have a team of people headquartered in Delhi and a technology group in Bangalore. We will have eight regional offices out of which five have started functioning... a couple of them have DDGs (deputy directors general) also. We have a number of DDGs in our head office for various matters. We came out with a draft approach which was signed off by the Prime Minister’s Council on August 12, 2009. We appointed two committees that came out with the biometric standards and data standards which are published on our website. We appointed Ernst & Young as consultants. We floated a tender for software which will be decided in a few weeks. We have started proof of concept (a small feasibility test) in three states. We came out with a strategy for using UID for financial inclusion which should get released in the public domain soon. So, we have made significant progress in these eight months.

So when do we see the first UID number being rolled out? Is it for residents?

We are sticking to our original commitment. When Mr (Pranab) Mukherjee gave his budget speech in July 2009, he said he wanted the first set of numbers within 12 to 18 months and for us the 12 to 18 months started on August 12, 2009 when the PM’s Council approved our strategy. So, the numbers will start rolling out between August 2010 and  February 2011.
Yes, for residents.

What is the difference?

Well, for residents means there is no check of proof of citizenship. But this number does not confer nationality, citizenship benefits, perquisites, entitlements and rights, none of these things. It’s just a number to identify a person; that he is the person he claims to be. It says X is X; Samir is Samir.

How long will be that number?

It’s a 12-digit number. There is the name. There is the date of birth. There is the sex. There is the address, father’s name and mother’s name. It’s just four to five fields.

What will be the highlights of this bill?

Basically it authorises this body and defines the framework for its operation.

Will it also address privacy concerns?

Well, the UID bill will address the privacy concerns of the data which it will have. For example, nobody can read our database. All you can use this database for is authentication. You use it to only say yes or no. You come and give your name and number and fingerprints, we will confirm within seconds that the person is the same person with that name in our database. So, we are not sharing any data.

Is Ernst & Young been taken on board as consultant. What will be its role?

Ernst & Young has been selected through an RFP (request for proposal) process. We are going to appoint a managed service provider (MSP). Because this database, which has more than a billion records, has to be managed, that has to be outsourced to somebody. And that is a very big decision­– the business model, the security, making sure that it is an organisation that has a prior experience. So we will be floating an RFP for that purpose and Ernst & Young will assist us in drafting that RFP for the final MSP choice.

Will this be a public-private partnership (PPP) like the Passport Seva project?

We will appoint an MSP who is an outsourced partner who may or may not be a private entity. It could be a public sector entity. That’s really based on the best candidate. The roll out will primarily happen with state governments and others like LIC, SBI and banks being registrars. So, initially, the registrar will essentially be a state or public sector entity. They, in turn, may appoint enrolling agencies, which may be private entities, to collect data.

Do you foresee amendments to other laws, say, the Passport Act, to incorporate UID?

I am not aware of that. Say, the PAN number is used in the stock market; it is used more by the regulator than by the law.

You suggested students as interns and representatives of IT companies on a sabbatical and a contest for the logo. Is that to save money or to involve people?

We want to do this project in the spirit of public participation. We have evangelised this project. For example, I have visited all states, personally gone to meet state governments. Raipur, Ranchi, Guwahati, Thiruvananthapuram, Kolkata, Shimla, Dehradun, you name it and I have gone there. That’s one way to spread the message. Second, we are encouraging people to come as volunteers. Third, we are encouraging people to come on a sabbatical from companies. Fourth, we are encouraging interns. Fifth, we had an open logo competition and got more than 2,000 entries. Then we are encouraging people to submit the source code. We are updating all progress on our website. The whole purpose is to make it an inclusive project.

So, it becomes a government–citizen partnership.
Exactly. We thought that rather than we doing it, we will open it for contribution from people.

Abhigyan, Adhar, Asmita are a few names going around for the branding of the project.

No, that is some article. But at some point we will come up with a brand identity for the whole thing as well as the logo and messaging campaign. [Update: The UID project has been branded as Aadhaar.]

How do you plan to the budget allocated?

Well, part of the money is for the infrastructure. We have to set up a data centre, we have to select an MSP, we have to get software, hardware, and biometrics. Not the biometric client equipment but the biometric de-duplication on the server side. The rest of the money is for the registrars. But that is still to be done. There is allocation in the budget. There is a process in government. It has to be approved by the Expenditure Finance Committee and that process is on.

Nine consultants have been shortlisted for the software assignment.

How much will the overall project cost?

Well, the cost of the project – one part of it will be technology, another part of this is the cost incurred by the registrar to enroll, and third part is the incentive we give to the people. We don’t know the exact figure but it will suffice to say that whatever may be the expenditure the benefit is well worth. Today India spends 100-200 thousand crores on various kind of social welfare programmes and subsidies. You can use UID to improve the efficiency of the systems. It will pay for itself very quickly.

What are the greatest challenges in this project – people, technology or process?

Everything, technology is on the cutting edge. This project is 10 times larger than any other biometric project. The largest biometric project is about 120 million (people). We are doing at a scale of 1.2 billion. Therefore, we have to have cutting edge technology and we have to make de-duplication work on a massive scale. That’s one thing. Enrollment is a big challenge. Enrolling a billion people at every nook and corner­—in mountains, forests, islands —all kind of places....that’s a huge challenge. Then, coordination is a big issue, because you have to work with partners— state governments, oil companies, banks. The design of this whole ecosystem is very complicated. Adoption is a big challenge, getting people to use this number. Dealing with security and privacy and making sure that happens. This is a very complex project.

What about the pilot project?

Right now we are doing what is called the proof of concept (POC) in three states. After we do the proof of concept we will learn about the operational problems. In the meantime our data centre will come up, our software will get ready, and then only we can do pilots.

Which are the states where the POC is going on?

Three states, but we have not announced these states.

You wrote ‘Imagining India’ in 2008. Are you planning to write another book?

Not for next five years.

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