Wow! What a story.
And then he gave it all up on one call from the Primer Minister of India. For what? For a government project. But wait a minute. This project is far bigger in scope and impact – it will touch every Indian’s life. It’s the UIDAI – Unique Identification Authority of India project.
I got a chance to listen to Nandan Nilekani live, at Indore today. He was invited to Indore for a Guest Editor assignment with Dainik Bhaskar group. Before I go into that, here is what the official website of UIDAI has to say about the project :
The key points I learnt from his speech, and personal interactions with him are as given below (these may not necessarily be his words, but my interpretation of what he said) :
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has been created as an attached office under the Planning Commission. Its role is to develop and implement the necessary institutional, technical and legal infrastructure to issue unique identity numbers to Indian residents. On June 25th 2009, the Cabinet also created and approved the position of the Chairperson of the UIDAI, and appointed Mr. Nandan Nilekani as the first Chairperson in the rank and status of a Cabinet Minister. Mr. Ram Sewak Sharma has been appointed the Director General.
The role that the Authority envisions is to issue a unique identification number (UID) that can be verified and authenticated in an online, cost-effective manner, and that is robust enough to eliminate duplicate and fake identities.
The first UID numbers will be issued over the next 12-18 months counted from August 2009. The first number would be issued between August 2010 to February 2011. Over five years, the Authority plans to issue 600 million UIDs. The numbers will be issued through various ‘registrar’ agencies across the country.
- The government of India realizes that the entire idea of public welfare through government intervention rests on some assumptions – the primary one being that various moneys reach the right persons through the right channels. Given the tremendous size of the nation and its myriad complexities, this is of course a compromised ideal, the level of compromise depending again on a host of complex factors.
- Over years, various kinds of technologies have been deputed to serve the need of speed, simplification and easy service to every stakeholder in the system. For ex: every government department has its own set of hardware and software installed, that is supposed to deliver some standardized output year after year. This has worked in some cases, and failed miserably in some others.
- There are hundreds of government departments that serve the public, and govern the public. Some of these are Central level, some State, and some others Local level departments. A citizen of India may interact with these departments at different points of contact, throughout his lifetime.
- The databases generated and collected through these different departments, over years, are full of limitations. Some parts of these are outdated, some are misleading, some are plain and simple wrong, and most are in no position to interact with each other. So there are clearly severe limitations in the way data is serving the public’s needs. And even the departments’ own needs.
- An all-encompassing vision in data-management has been missing. That’s quite natural, given the sheer scale and diversity of applications, and the different governing structures prevailing in a country the size of India.
- But there is one simple realization dawning on the policy-makers of India : Unless there is a single common system of identifying every Indian, most of the social welfare schemes (NREGA, Indira Awas Yojana, Mid-day meal schemes etc.) will only produce half-baked results due to continuous leakages. Since these schemes have taken a huge shape with the introduction of the massive guaranteed employment scheme called NREGA, the need for honest and reliable identification of beneficiaries has become a total must.
- So in simple words – we have to ensure that a Mr Ramkishore of Village Pratapgarh who is taking benefits of 7 different government schemes is actually the same Mr Ramkishore of Village Pratapgarh who is eligible to take those benefits!
- So, the UIDAI is creating the “soft infrastructure” needed to power social welfare schemes and public bodies of tomorrow.
- To the question of how this “uniqueness” will be ensured, it is obvious that biometrics is one of the best solutions possible. The biometric parameters to be used will be – 10 fingerprints (from 10 fingers in both hands) + the Iris map of both eyes + the picture of the face. These data sets will create a unique set against which duplication etc. will be impossible. The Unique Identification Number will be thus mapped with these biometric datasets.
- The UI number will be demand-driven. The government will not force it upon the citizens, but will make a lot of services use this number, thereby increasing the need for everyone to have their own UI numbers.
- The UI number will not be a card, it will just be a number, that can be used on any other card – PAN card, Ration card, School Admission card, Scholarship card, Job card, Guarantee cards – anything!
- Once the unique number is created, and used on ALL types of other cards (databases) that the user is interacting with, these databases can then start interacting with each other, with at least this one thing in common. Till now, that mutual interaction was totally missing. So a common profiling of any user was not possible. Now, it will suddenly become possible.
- Put simply, the benefits of a Unique Identification Number will be
- Each one of us will be uniquely recorded in the government registers
- No confusion and no overlapping would mean clear, correct data
- Lots of databases can start interacting with each other meaningfully (this is far tougher than it sounds, as legacy issues and incompatibility issues will need to be sorted out, something that the UIDAI is not meant to ensure)
- The last person in the line (the poorest of the poor) will be officially and properly recorded in the government’s records. So good news for the marginalised and destitute, in our population
- Portability of a Unique Identity will become possible – something that’s largely missing today from the system
- Unique Identification Number will not offer any special privileges
- The UIDAI is created to ensure a unique identity for each Indian, nothing more. They do not promise any miracle out of this. They are only creating the basic backbone on top of which other Application developers can now creatively start building useful products and services. But the UIDAI is limited in scope to creating a unique number. That’s it.
- So the UIDAI will ensure that whatever and whoever a person claims he/she is, he/she actually will be.
- How will the Unique Identification Number help the Police department? That is for the Police department to figure out. They have the great tool for identifying people – now they have to work out ways to use this soft infrastructure.
- Over the next decade, several private sector application developers will emerge who may offer good solutions for various domains. That’s all in the future!
My observations about Mr Nandan Nilekani, and what success truly is all about –
- Humility – I was amazed to see the way he was carrying himself – no airs at all. Totally at ease with everyone, all the time.
- Domain knowledge – Nandan surely knows the way software, hardware and humanware have to work together to make a project of this mammoth a scale successful. His track record is all too visible.
- Guts and Glory – Nandan took a bold decision to chuck his corporate innings and dive deep into new territory – full-time government assignment. That’s boldness for you!
- Personal credibility – Someone said beautifully once “The messenger is the message.” Mr Nilekani stands tall and his presence itself is the guarantee.