In less than a week, the Unique Identification (UID) project, or Aadhar as it is officially called, will roll out in an impoverished corner of tribal Maharashtra, heralding the most ambitious attempt yet to transform the way the Indian State reaches its citizens.
There are two things unique about Aadhar (appropriately, it means ‘the foundation’): how it’s run and what it will do.
First, how is it run?
For a project that will eventually provide identities to 1.2 billion Indians, the number of people at work on one of India’s most far-reaching government projects ever, is remarkably small: around 120. They are spread across Aadhar’s headquarters in a Delhi office tower, its main centre in a Bangalore technology park and in seven states where Aadhar is close to launch. These people form a small, smart, flat and fast team, extracted from India’s state and private sectors.
Aadhar’s 2S2F (small-smart-fast-flat) model is unsurprising. It was created by the man who — through a best-selling book of the same name by the American writer Thomas Friedman — gave the world the term ‘The Flat World’. As chief of Aadhar, Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and former CEO of the iconic tech company Infosys, brings to the government skills he honed riding the waves of opportunity to the distant shores of a world flattened by technology, democracy and openness.
Nilekani has now created an organisation that is a precursor to tomorrow’s government. At Aadhar’s offices, you will find IAS officers from Jharkhand, techies from multinational giants like Intel, Cisco and Google and former investment bankers from everywhere. Some are employees, some are paid by their companies, a few are volunteers.
Second, what will Aadhar do?
This is where it gets trickier, as one might expect with a project of this scale. Strictly speaking, Aadhar’s job is, as Nilekani likes to say, “to generate a 16-digit identification number for every Indian”. But simply producing numbers is very limiting to Aadhar’s talents. So, he’s pitched Aadhar to handle projects as diverse as a national-highway toll-collection system, a technology backbone for the forthcoming Goods and Services Tax (GST) and reform of the vast public distribution system (PDS) for subsidised food. Nilekani’s expertise is project development and management; troubleshooting for the government and transforming its inefficient programmes should be up his street.
Of course, it isn’t quite that simple.
Change, especially of the 2S2F variety, is never easy in eternal India. Officials resent Aadhar because its structure and brief challenges their world and work. This isn’t very worrying. They can slow some bits of Aadhar, but they cannot stop it. The opposition from intellectuals is trickier. The bulk of it comes from the influential National Advisory Council (NAC), whose members are currently tasked with reforming some of the same national programmes that Nilekani and his team hope to handle, like the PDS. The NAC’s chief is Sonia Gandhi, and she can stall Aadhar.
Intellectual challenges to Aadhar chiefly focus on concerns that Aadhar is, as NAC member and economist Jean Dreze put it, “a national security project in the garb of a social policy initiative”. Given India’s dodgy track record on civil liberties, this is a legitimate concern, but it is misaddressed. These are questions for the government, not Aadhar.
Other concerns focus on the benefits and efficiency of Unique Identification (UID) and technology in general as a solution for poverty. “I have seen technology really work wonders for the poor,” said NAC member Harsh Mander. “One of the big reasons for the popularity of YSR (Reddy) in Andhra Pradesh was that old people got pensions on the first of every month. The worry I have is that a lot of India’s poor survive by keeping out of the way of the State, from tribal forest encroachers to urban slum dwellers. I do wonder how UID will reach them.”
The questioning will keep Aadhar open, democratic and innovative, pushing it to respond to issues as they emerge. Persuasive, affable and networked, Nilekani is no novice in Delhi’s corridors of power. He’s spent many days meeting and making presentations to UID’s opponents and trying to win over high-power support. As another outsider, Sam Pitroda, the prime minister’s advisor on national information infrastructure — a fibre optic network that will be vital to connecting UID’s computers and hand-held devices — told me, “The resistance is part of the process.”
The need for Aadhar is undeniable and urgent.
Proving identity is an insurmountable task for millions of Indians, particularly migrants, poor farmers and landless labour, who comprise most of the 400 million people who live below the global poverty line of $1.25 a day. These are people who often lose their history the moment they step out of their villages, cut adrift from the extensive social security schemes on which India will spend Rs 1.18 lakh crore this year. A fourth to half that amount never reaches its beneficiaries. As a start, the UID should be able to replace 19 documents that are variously accepted as proof of identity today — but incredibly hard to obtain — ranging from a ration card, passport or PAN card.
When Aadhar officially launches in backward Nandurbar on September 29 or 30, 10,000 Indians would already be enrolled in Andhra Pradesh, their faces and fingerprints recorded in what will eventually be a vast national database. Despite the hurdles, Aadhar’s small team is racing ahead, hoping to enroll 100 million Indians by March 2011. Nilekani is offering India’s reform process a new deal. It is a fine idea to embrace.