The UID project is considered by many specialists to be the most technologically
and logistically complex national identification effort ever attempted.
By Amol Sharma
Nandan Nilekani, chairman of India’s Unique Identification Authority, assembled an elite group of software engineers, tech-savvy bureaucrats and biometric experts to build a system that could issue unique 12-digit numbers to all the country’s 1.2 billion people, based on fingerprints and iris scans.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh officially launches that massive identification effort Wednesday.
Most of the tech gurus that designed the unique ID system were of Indian-origin, and volunteered to help the effort without pay. Here’s a look at some of the people on Mr. Nilekani’s Dream Team:
The E-Governor: Srikanth Nadhamuni.
Mr. Nadhamuni was tech employee #1 and became the host in Bangalore for the other engineers who designed the core technology behind the world’s most complex national ID program. After spending 16 years in Silicon Valley as a technologist and entrepreneur at companies including Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics and Intel, Mr. Nadhamuni came back to India to work on social-oriented tech projects. He formed the e-Governments Foundation in 2003 with Mr. Nilekani to push for improved municipal government services. Mr. Nadhamuni and the others rented an apartment to use as an office near his home in a gated Bangalore community called Adarsh Palm Retreat. He now heads the unique ID technology team.
The Transactions Expert: Pramod Varma
Shortly after Mr. Nilekani was tapped to lead the unique ID effort, Mr. Varma called him from the U.S and said he wanted to sign on. He had just been reading Mr. Nilekani’s book, “Imagining India,” a call to action for the country’s government to solve persistent development problems.
Mr. Varma, an Infosys alumnus, had helped start a Boston-area company that specialized in complex inventory management systems for retailers like JC Penney and Target. His firm processes 25 million orders daily for Best Buy alone. “That’s the kind of inventory system we’re looking for at UID,” he says Mr. Nilekani told him. Mr. Varma was one of the first five at the Bangalore apartment.
The Bureaucratic Brains: R.S. Sharma
Mr. Nilekani knew the unique ID effort wasn’t all about technology. He would need someone with a deep knowledge of the Indian government to win over skeptics who wanted to protect their bureaucratic fiefdoms. Early on, he brought in Mr. Sharma, a 55-year old bureaucrat from Jharkhand state with background in sanitation and science, to serve as de facto CEO.
Unusually tech-savvy for a government official, Mr. Sharma programmed the first version of the software where unique ID applicants’ demographic information gets entered. He was responsible for hiring and struck deals with various state government agencies and public sector banks to help with sign-up. He brought the post office on board to deliver 1.2 billion unique numbers to Indians via mail. “Technology is a very important part of this, but it’s essentially a governance project,” he says.
The Development Guru: Wyly Wade
Mr. Wade, a World Bank consultant who has been coming to India for 14 years and lives in New Delhi now, agreed to advise Mr. Nilekani on the project’s intersections with India’s welfare programs. One major goal of issuing unique identity numbers is to root out corruption in the distribution of benefits ranging from food to health insurance. Falsified and fake identification papers help people siphon away billions of dollars of such aid every year from its intended beneficiaries.
Mr. Wade says the program can give government great insight into how its development schemes are working in practice, but said India needs to be proactive about putting in place robust privacy protections. Though he isn’t a technologist, he worked closely with the team in Bangalore. “It was a Silicon Valley startup inside the Indian government. It might as well have been in someone’s garage,” he says.
The Fingerprints Specialist: Salil Prabhakar
Mr. Prabhakar literally wrote the book on biometrics—or at least a widely used one called the “Handbook of Fingerprint Recognition.” He took periodic leaves from his biometrics company beginning in the fall of 2009 to help the Bangalore team. He also scouted other major national ID and biometrics projects around the world, first at an industry conference in Tampa and then a workshop organized by the World Bank in New Delhi.
He says the tight timeline Mr. Nilekani gave the group— issuing the first unique numbers by March 2010—was a source of anxiety. “We wondered sometimes, can we pull it off? What’s the plan B?” he said. But in the end, what’s being put in place in villages across India now is pretty much what got launched in that Bangalore apartment. “We slept there. We worked there,” he says. “The first designs of the entire system were put together in that room.”