Nandan Nilekani: From pro-bono mercenary to UIDAI chairman
Published on Sat, Aug 14, 2010 at 15:13 | Updated at Sat, Aug 14, 2010 at 15:32 | Source : CNBC-TV18
Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India or ‘Aadhar’ as it is known these days, Nandan Nilekani, in January 2009, was asked why somebody who was so passionate about the future of India and about policy matters did not just jump right into politics because he would then get so much more done and so much quicker.
To which he had simply said, “I can get a lot done, in fact, a lot more done because I am not a threat to anyone. I am not doing this to become a minister, to make money, or to become more famous—I have been that, done that. I am doing this simply because I feel these things have to be fixed. So you can think of me as a freelance pro-bono public service mercenary, broadly. And everybody says, “Great, this guy is coming, he wants to do something, he doesn’t want anything out of it and he’ll get it done so why not?”
Here is a verbatim transcript of his exclusive interview with CNBC-TV18, where he discusses how the journey has been. Also watch the accompanying video.
Q: Between being a pro-bono public service mercenary to the Chairman of the UIDAI or Aadhar, a minister of cabinet rank, it’s a long journey, isn't it?
A: It’s really the same because I am really again contributing to working on a few all these issues and I like doing this.
Q: You are still living in denial.
A: No, what denial?
Q: The trapping of who you are and how you are contributing have changed completely, isn't it?
A: Yes, I mean the difference is that then I was not in government, now I am in government, I do have a cabinet rank and I work full-time now in government. But I am still really there to work on a particular problem to be the project manager, to execute and implement and get some value. So it’s really a variation of the same thing.
Q: In your head it’s the same thing?
Q: But how much have things changed because you had sometime back said that you were not seen as a threat, you were seen as somebody who just wanted to get things done and people would therefore let you because you were not in their space. Today, because of the formality of the position because you are full-time in government are things different? Are people looking at you differently?
A: No I think I am getting fabulous co-operation from everyone because I think they know that’s my sort of motive, that I really want to just fix a few things and so I get terrific co-operation. In the last one year it’s not just the job I do at UIDAI; there have been other things I have been involved with.
Q: Yes now the technology committees, isn't it?
A: Yes, I am heading a technology advisory group on unique projects for the Finance Minister. I am working on contributing to the GST architecture. I did something for KamalNath on electronic tolling for national highways. So I like doing this because it gives me a chance to work on something which has a lot of technology, architecture in it but also if it’s implemented well can make a difference.
Q: You are still being as the outsider Good Samaritan?
A: No, I have sort of tried to, I took a view that this was a new job and I have to prove myself all over again and that I couldn’t live off my past accomplishments in some sense. So I press the reset button, went back to ground zero level and started working from scratch to build my organisation and out the team in place and start working on the technology and deployment. So I really have put my head down and worked on the issues.
Q: What is the past year been like because it’s just a little bit over a year that you have been in this role and this function. So there is been a physical move from Bangalore to Delhi. Is there a difference between the Bangalore frame of mind and the Delhi frame of mind between private sector and public sector?
A: Oh yes, there are plenty of differences.
Q: What are some of the things? Explain it to us.
A: Clearly the public sector or public space is a lot more complex in the sense that there are a lot more moving parts, forces, stakeholders, different points of view. And, if you want to bring about a change then the amount of energy and time you need to consume in driving a consensus in that multifarious situation is very high and you have to carry a lot of people, build a consensus, collaborate with people, define vision of where you want to go and make other people subscribe to that vision.
In the private sector you do that too but that small limited within the space of your company or board, your management team. So in that sense this is a much more open canvas. So that’s been one big difference. Actually its like starting all over again because when I landed here I was the first employee of this entity and right from day one getting great officers, getting private sector talent to contribute, putting the team together, organisation budgets, office space—everything has been like a start up. But it’s been great fun.
Q: A lot of fun but also I am sure very challenging because you come from a different lifestyle, a different work on context, a different work ethic even perhaps. What were those challenges specifically? What I am saying is give me some of the things that were frustrating and would be to someone who moves across that private sector, his own company to the government?
A: Actually it’s less different than we think.
A: Yes. I think if you have a clear objective, if you can articulate your objective, if you can figure out the benefit proposition for the other party, there they will accept it. In the business situation you are selling something to a customer, here you are selling an idea or a partnership to somebody. It works exactly the same way and people respond to their incentives, alignment of benefits, win-win scenarios etc. So I think it’s very much similar. Of course there are other challenges in a sense that the processes are much more rigorous, budgeting, funding, getting people.
Q: I have been reading that staffing is been a bit of a problem. That you need a kind of schemes you would suggest perhaps need clearances from the expenses department. So how do you deal with those things and that rigor, does it make you impatient sometimes?
A: Not really because the way I operate is that I’ll be operating on multiple paths at the same time and it may happen that some part may get stuck a bit but that doesn’t matter because I have got other irons in the fire. So you just have to de-risk it by having multiple things going on at the same time. So I actually have no issues.
Q: No issues at all?
A: Not at all, great co-operation from everybody.
Q: You haven’t needed a bull walk to support you through this—somebody who would probably help ease things for you because of their perspective or their understanding?
A: That way the Prime Minister himself has been a huge champion of this project, the Finance Minister, the Home Minister, Montek has been a great support because I am attached to the planning commission, the Cabinet Secretary has been a great support; there are umpteen number of people who have been very supportive. Overall I think they have gone out of the way to make me feel comfortable, to make me feel wanted, to address any concerns I have and to make my job easier.
Q: Ever since this move happened for you or this opportunity or challenge came your way, there are a lot of people outside there in the private sector who keep thinking, “Could we do this, it would be great if we could do this”. There is a lot of interest in this twist that your career or your professional life has taken. Would you recommend it to people outside?
A: Yes, definitely I would recommend it. Obviously it’s a question of timing and so forth—where you are in your life and so on. And also it’s making sure that you sort of land the right kind of opportunity which matches your sales and your background; you shouldn’t try to do something that is alien to what you have been doing. So in that sense this job is very good because it has a huge amount of technology in it and so therefore it can play to my background. And its about technology for transformation which is I have been doing. So in that sense it is important to take a role where you have creditability from your experience.
Q: It has a lot of technology involved, but also lot of marketing isn't it because I think over the past year you have had to just meet people from state governments to public sector organisations to bureaucrats to industrial associations I have been hearing you say. So it is been a long and sort of pitched hard sell to get people to buy in isn't it?
A: I thought it was a soft sell but anyways. Well obviously, also remember we were not ready with the platform anyway. So we knew that we’ll take a year to build the platform and so it made sense to use that year to get the external environment aligned with your goals so that when the platform was ready you would roll it out faster. So it made sense from a project timing point of view. So I did that, I visited all the states, I went to 24-25 states, I met 17 Chief Ministers, all the Ministries, all the regulators, all industry associations, you name it.
Q: But did the consensus building part of the job, overtake or overshadow the pure technology and operational part or challenge for you personally?
A: It was a kind of a division of labor because my colleague Ram Sewak Sharma who is the Director General and CEO is an outstanding brilliant guy and also he is very tech savvy. He is an IIT graduate with an M Tech in Computer Science from the University of California. He still writes programmes, very tech savvy and he is a great guy so he really runs the organization, I just give the interviews.
Q: But you are used to this. That’s what you have been doing where India is concerned on the international platform, all of that.
A: There again is some sense my background in brand building for Infosys, brand building for India, all that helps.
Q: You have spent the past year meeting all these Chief Ministers, traveling across the states. Is there anything that came out of this one year because of this work profile that threw up new thoughts or a new understanding of the India you have imagined, the India you have understood so far?
A: Yes, I was very naive actually when I started this whole thing.
A: Yes, I could probably describe New York better than I can describe an Indian town, its not that I have figured it out completely yet. But the exposure, the kind of problems on the ground, the kind of solutions that we need to offer everything made me more familiar with India. I assure this one year has been a huge learning exercise for me.
Q: Is there a particular specific illustration which would help me understand how this intense experience over the past year has helped you re-look at some of your earlier understandings?
A: I mean a simple thing, reaching money to people, which you think is not a big deal, right? We all go to the bank or the ATM—it’s actually very difficult and very complex because if you are a person living out there in the village, either you have to get the money from person in the government or you have to get through the postman or you have to get it through a bank which is 40 kilometers away and all of them have their challenges. So a simple thing like reaching money to people is a huge challenge.
A simple thing for a migrant, there are 100 million migrants in this country and there is a huge migration because you have the population-rich areas which are in the central India and the jobs are in coastal India so there is massive migration out which is happening out from Middle India states to the farming states. And so there say 100 million migrants and they have absolutely no mobility. Their identity is not mobile. If they move from Chhattisgarh to Delhi, they can’t enroll into the local PDS system.
When they have to send money home, for us it’s just a wire transfer in the bank, for them it’s very complex. They have no place to store their money, they keep it under the mattress, they get stolen, they get mugged on pay day. So it’s a really tough situation out there and that was really an eye opening thing for me and so my mind always is on, “Okay now that we are doing all this stuff how can we use the power of our technology to make life different for all our people.” And that’s been a huge learning.
Q: Isn't this going to be one of the various different challenges at an operational level when it comes to rolling out or implementing Aadhar. We have heard about peoples’ concerns about privacy, about security, about identity theft and you have been talking about all these issues. What do you think is the core issue that will come in the way of a demand pull for Aadhar, which is people wanting to go out and get this?
A: I think our ability to show that it is beneficial for people to have this number. I mean that’s the core—if our customer which is really the resident of India, if they see value in this number, they see that in some way their life is a material change because of having the number then they will come and take it in spades. If you don’t do that then we have lost the marketing battle. So we are trying to make sure there is enough value, enough benefit, enough perception of value is what we do.
Q: From thinking of the idea of the identity numbers to me getting it, there are several parts to this process, so it is the biometric, the collection of data, getting people to register, all of that. Which is the biggest challenge for Aadhar?
A: Right now it’s the enrollment challenge which is getting people to come to enrollment point with the right documentation or whatever papers they need, giving the biometrics and then shipping that information to our central server to issue numbers.
Q: That’s the key challenge now?
A: Right now, yes.
Q: But when it comes to the technology that will support this, the authentication process, you are saying all those are areas which you feel are under control and manageable?
A: No. See there are basically two big things we do, enrollment and authentication. Enrollment is a onetime activity to get people to come in, give their demographic and biometric information and issue them a number. So they come in, they give the information, the data comes to us, we make sure it’s not a duplicate and then we send him a letter with his number. So that’s the enrollment loop.
Authentication is an activity in perpetuity which is the authentication now, something which will be done in many applications. So when that person goes to a business correspondent in a village, operates a micro ATM to withdraw money, that has an authentication request. Somebody else goes to a PDA store, authenticates to withdraw his rice or wheat, that’s an authentication request.
Q: And that’s being tested even as we speak, that end is being tested?
A: Yes, authentication testing is also going on because right now enrollment testing is going on and obviously the authentication testing is also going on.
Q: We are talking in the week which is exactly a year to August 12, 2009 when the Prime Ministers council on UID met and worked out the contours, the legal framework and a whole lot of things including the timeline. You know the famous 12 to 18 months from then, is when the numbers would start rolling out. What's the update on that because that the question everybody keeps asking you isn't it? When are the numbers coming?
A: The goal was 12 to 18 months. The enrollment will be closer to 12 than 18 months. That means we’ll have done it faster than that 18 months.
Q: So 18 months would make it February.
A: And we are in August and enrollment should start soon.
Q: And which part of the country is that?
A: Well that’s being worked out and it’ll start in one place obviously because it will be a launch kind of thing because the architecture is scalable in the sense the backend architecture can scale up to any number of enrollment. So if different states or different banks or the LIC or the oil companies who want to start, they can all start at the same time and it will just come to us at the backend. So it’s really a question of how many guys of the front end want to roll it out.
Q: There seem to be some confusion over the past few months, there was a sense, I had an idea what Aadhar was doing and them you had the census, NPR also wanting to use biometrics and then you heard the income tax people were also doing it, then you heard no you are all doing it together. What is happening because there seems to be confusion and it will make your job or Aadhar’s task that much more difficult if there are other bodies doing this?
A: No there is absolutely no confusion. The income tax pan card plans to upgrade to a biometric pan card using Aadhar—so they are like a registrar for us. The NPR is going to collect biometrics using Aadhar standards. If NPR collects for new person we will give them the number, with the person NPR goes to is an existing person, we’ll figure a way to handle it. So we have made sure that there is no duplication.
Q: There is no duplication even if NPR does this simultaneously?
A: Absolutely not, everything is co-ordinated. We have a joint co-ordination committee with the Registrar General of India precisely to sort out such issues.
Q: Was this becoming a challenge or were we reading it to be a bigger challenge and more confusing than it actually was for the guys who were doing it?
A: We were always very clear and we had a very clear understanding and I think it’s worked out very well.
Q: You have said that and I am quoting you, “The next five years is the last opportunity we have to harness our demographic dividend. Five years later if we haven’t done anything the number of people without jobs and the level of dissatisfaction will be so high that instead of going towards this beautiful country we will end up in a disaster.” You are now a part of the government. How do you think the government, UPA-2 government of which you are a part of, is dealing with these five years? And we are already one down.
A: Well let me not get into that but I think the government is fully focused on that. I mean education, skill development, right to education, new universities, new schools, huge amount of money being put into this—all that is happening. So I think its very much focus on the right things. I see my role as how do we use the platform that we create to accelerate some of these things? For example how do we use it in education to improve attendance or to improve the quality of education and how do we use it in skills to give people skill vouchers so that they can get skills. So I see from that point of view.
Q: You have already articulated the fact that these five years are going to be critical—in India it will be a turning point.
A: Absolutely. And I think everybody has a sense of urgency that we need to get on with it. So I think its happening.
Q: Do you feel more constrain now that you are part of the government in articulating everything that you want to say?
A: No. Obviously if you are an outsider, you are a private sector you can give your views on everything but when you are part of the government then you have to play by the rules and part of that is to really stick to what you do which is why I really only comment on my project.
Q: I need you to tell me any interesting story that sums up your Delhi experience and the mind set difference between Bangalore and Delhi?
Q: Not a single one?
A: No I think, I keep making this point that the thing I like about being in the public space is that often the small things are very difficult to do in a sense to get that extra person or to pay that little more money or to upgrade the car, there are process for that but if you have a big idea on how Aadhar can be used for financial inclusion then it’s a much easier sell.
Q: So you have to sweat the small stuff is it?
A: So I said that I’ll forget the small stuff, I’ll focus on the big stuff because that seems to be easier to do anyway.