A day after he was appointed chairman of the National Unique Identification Authority (NUIA), an enthusiastic Nandan Nilekani spoke to Gautam Chikermane about the project, the challenges --- and moving into a white Ambassador.
What is it you're trying to do at NUIA?
If it is done well this project has enormous transformational implications. Identity is something that empowers and identity inclusion is something that can bring access to infrastructure and services to the poor. I see identity as a means of empowerment.
If I am a migrant from Bihar and come to Bombay, how do I get access, how do I get a voting card, a ration card, a bank account?
So the whole idea is to create an access ramp to public services.
It will also help in targeting benefits to identified people. So we will have much better targeting of people for public services.
Will this do away with KYC (know your customer) norms, PAN (personal account number) cards, and so on? Is this going to be the one and only card a citizen needs?
The important thing here is the number. Once the person has a number in a central database, then I can issue any number of cards as long as all those cards have same number.
Having an identity number does not exclude him from having any other card. It means that if you have a PAN card, then on both the cards the ID number will be the same.
Will a person coming from village to some other city will have to go through the entire process of KYC or this one card enough?
There are two parts. One, KYC and two, services like bank accounts. The bank opening part is unique to the bank and what I hope to provide from the central unique identity utility is a standard KYC process.
Will the address change when I move from Bihar to Bombay?
All other things remain the same except the address, which will change. When I get a card issued by Election Commission in Bihar, the person is enrolled into the system. There will be an enrolment process, which will have certain service level and will make sure that they have complied with KYR (Know Your Resident) norms that are acceptable to the everyone in the ecosystem. Any person enrolled will have to go through the basic KYR.
This is because multiple people will contribute to the central database and so all of them must follow a discipline that is acceptable to all others.
Its reciprocal altruism at play, where I act as the coordinator and people will contribute to the database. I will do the coordination function so as to keep a check that they bring in the right details. Everyone has to bring names to the system and they will have to ensure that they have done the basic KYR so that they contribute quality name to the system.
Is it possible to do all this by 2011?
I need to get into it as I have to issue a billion IDs. I can't comment on dates.
What's the big change that comes with your new role?
The biggest change is that I will have to change my email ID. For the last 30 years I have been wedded to one company and I have been associated with it from the birth and I am completely in my comfort zone. This is completely different world that I will get in and there are far more ambiguities, so clearly there is a transition on the work front --- I will have to stay in Delhi.
So you get the white Ambassador with a red light on top?
I may get the white Ambassador --- I like the car --- but without the light.
How do you visualise a life without Infosys?
It's a new chapter and that is what I have committed
The challenges are big --- working with a bureaucracy, other departments…
We will put in place a robust and high integrity procurement process.
What is the size of the project?
Overall spend by all the participants may be high but not very much will be spent by this organisation. It will be done by partners who can be government, banks, private companies, telecom players. I will provide ground infrastructure, database, biometrics, verification network and unique test features so that the person is not there twice.
If someone comes from Bihar to Bombay and gives his number then the bank will send a request to the central server and that will authenticate the person after which the bank says that my KYC is over. This will reduce the KYC cost. Today, everyone does the KYC and it is inefficient, expensive and thoroughly not correct.
So, what next for Nandan Nilekani --- politics?
This is mother of all problems and I like to solve problems and it will take long time to solve this. I have no time for anything else.
What about your next book?
No way, I have no more time to write books.