I just want to be a change agent - Nilekani


Samir Sachdeva | June 14, 2010

On March 6, I made an e-mail request to Nandan Nilekani for an interview. Barely an hour later, came his reply suggesting that I should get in touch with his colleague Srikar and within no time the interview was scheduled for 11 am on April 8. On April 8, when we reached the office of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in the heart of New Delhi, we did not have to sign any register or get a gate pass.

As we started setting up our cameras, Nilekani arrived. He was punctual, prompt, and articulate; and he spoke at length about the challenges associated with the project.

Edited excerpts from an exclusive  interview with Samir Sachdeva:

You joined the UIDAI on May 23, 2009. What has been the progress so far?
I was the first person to join. Within a week, my colleague Ram Sewak Sharma joined as the DG (director general) and then others started joining us. Now we have a team of people headquartered in Delhi and a technology group in Bangalore. We will have eight regional offices out of which five have started functioning... a couple of them have DDGs (deputy directors general) also. We have a number of DDGs in our head office for various matters. We came out with a draft approach which was signed off by the Prime Minister’s Council on August 12, 2009. We appointed two committees that came out with the biometric standards and data standards which are published on our website. We appointed Ernst & Young as consultants. We floated a tender for software which will be decided in a few weeks. We have started proof of concept (a small feasibility test) in three states. We came out with a strategy for using UID for financial inclusion which should get released in the public domain soon. So, we have made significant progress in these eight months.

So when do we see the first UID number being rolled out?

We are sticking to our original commitment. When Mr (Pranab) Mukherjee gave his budget speech in July 2009, he said he wanted the first set of numbers within 12 to 18 months and for us the 12 to 18 months started on August 12, 2009 when the PM’s Council approved our strategy. So, the numbers will start rolling out between August 2010 and  February 2011. 

Do we look forward to August 15, 2010 or January 26, 2011)?


Will the UID number be for residents or for citizens?

It is for the residents.

What is the difference?

Well, for residents means there is no check of proof of citizenship. But this number does not confer nationality,
citizenship benefits, perquisites, entitlements and rights, none of these things. It’s just a number to identify a
person; that he is the person he claims to be. It says X is X; Samir is Samir.

There are a lot of illegal migrants in some states. Will they also be able to get this number?

Anyone who meets the verification and residency requirements as defined by our document will get the UID number. It continues to be the responsibility of the appropriate agency to determine the eligibility for other things. For example, whether they deserve to get a BPL card, whether they deserve to get a passport, whether they deserve to vote – all those things are with the existing government agencies. So we are not taking anybody else’s authority. All we are doing is saying this is the person.

So even Bangladeshi nationals staying in India will be able to get the number?

Any person who meets the verification and residency standards will get it.

What all fields will be there on this number?

There is a number itself...

How long will be that number?

It’s a 12-digit number. There is the name. There is the date of birth. There is the sex. There is the address, father’s name and mother’s name. It’s just four to five fields.

Will we need a legislation for UID?

One of the parallel tracks is the drafting of a UID Act. A separate team in our group is looking at drafting the bill and getting it ready to be taken up. But right now it’s at the conceptual stage.

What will be the highlights of this bill?

Basically it authorises this body and defines the framework for its operation.

Will it also address privacy concerns?

Well, the UID bill will address the privacy concerns of the data which it will have. For example, nobody can read our database. All you can use this database for is authentication. You use it to only say yes or no. You come and give your name and number and fingerprints, we will confirm within seconds that the person is the same person with that name in our database. So, we are not sharing any data.

Will the State be able to look into the database?


Not even the law enforcement agencies?

Only under the appropriate law.

But in the absence of a privacy law...

In the interest of national security or public order or whatever is the appropriate thing, there can be a request to get information on a particular individual but it has to be subjected to due process like a court order.

That due process will be part of the UID Act…

Yes, that will be defined in the UID Act.

You just mentioned that Ernst & Young has been taken on board as consultant. What will be its role?

Ernst & Young has been selected through an RFP (request for proposal) process. We are going to appoint a managed service provider (MSP). Because this database, which has more than a billion records, has to be managed, that has to be outsourced to somebody. And that is a very big decision– the business model, the security, making sure that it is an organisation that has a prior experience. So we will be floating an RFP for that purpose and Ernst & Young will assist us in drafting that RFP for the final MSP choice.

Will this be a public-private partnership (PPP) like the Passport Seva project?

We will appoint an MSP who is an outsourced partner who may or may not be a private entity. It could be a public sector entity. That’s really based on the best candidate. The roll out will primarily happen with state governments and others like LIC, SBI and banks being registrars. So, initially, the registrar will essentially be a state or public sector entity. They, in turn, may appoint enrolling agencies, which may be private entities, to collect data.

Looking ahead, what will be the role of the National Informatics Centre (NIC) or Department of Information Technology (DIT) in the UID project?

We have been in touch with NIC to provide team members for the project. DIT is well aware of whatever we are doing.

What about the ministries for rural development and consumer affairs?

We are working with them. For example, we are forming a joint coordination committee with the ministry of rural development for things like NREGA. We are working on a coordination committee with RGI (Registrar General of India) on the National Population Register. So, we are looking at various such partnerships.

Are you working with the ministry of petroleum also?

Yes, through oil marketing companies, because oil marketing companies do the LPG and kerosene subsidies. They also need to use UID. 

I understand Human Resources  Development Minister Kapil Sibal also wants to collaborate with the UID on the Right to Education Act.

We have had very good meetings with Mr Kapil Sibal. With the Right to Education Act private schools have to take 25 percent of students from the underprivileged background. How will you monitor that? How will you know that? You need UID for that. Or even for mid-day meals. The point is UID is applicable to rural development, urban poor, health, education, PDS, pensions, RSBY (Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana), insurance – everything finally boils down to identity choices.

With regards to states, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh have already signed MoUs with you.

You have to get latest information because every day some of the states are signing.

The UID will be required when someone has to get a passport or a voter identity card. Does that make it compulsory?

Over time, as more and more benefits get linked to UID, yes, having UID will make a lot of sense. From our end the UID number will be voluntary but if a partner of ours makes it mandatory in its zone of operation – then it can do that.

Will you provide Rs 200 incentive to BPL families for registration for UID as the 13th Finance Commission report recommends?

The Finance Commission has made a provision of Rs 2,989 crore which is primarily meant to give incentive to the poor to get UID number.

So, will they get Rs 200 or Rs 100 to get registered for UID number?

Rs 100

Do you foresee amendments to other laws, say, the Passport Act, to incorporate UID?

I am not aware of that. Say, the PAN number is used in the stock market; it is used more by the regulator than by the law.

You suggested students as interns and representatives of IT companies on a sabbatical and a contest for the logo. Is that to save money or to involve people?

We want to do this project in the spirit of public participation. We have evangelised this project. For example, I have visited all states, personally gone to meet state governments. Raipur, Ranchi, Guwahati, Thiruvananthapuram, Kolkata, Shimla, Dehradun, you name it and I have gone there. That’s one way to spread the message. Second, we are encouraging people to come as volunteers. Third, we are encouraging people to come on a sabbatical from companies. Fourth, we are encouraging interns. Fifth, we had an open logo competition and got more than 2,000 entries. Then we are encouraging people to submit the source code. We are updating all progress on our website. The whole purpose is to make it an inclusive project.

So, it becomes a government–citizen partnership.
Exactly. We thought that rather than we doing it, we will open it for contribution from people.

Abhigyan, Adhar, Asmita are a few names going around for the branding of the project.

No, that is some article. But at some point we will come up with a brand identity for the whole thing as well as the logo and messaging campaign.

Any names that have been shortlisted?

No, I can’t say that at this stage.

You have Rs 1,900 crore in this year’s budget. How do you plan to use it?

Well, part of the money is for the infrastructure. We have to set up a data centre, we have to select an MSP, we have to get software, hardware, and biometrics. Not the biometric client equipment but the biometric de-duplication on the server side. The rest of the money is for the registrars. But that is still to be done. There is allocation in the budget. There is a process in government. It has to be approved by the Expenditure Finance Committee and that process is on.

Nine consultants have been shortlisted for the software assignment…

No, I think there were 19 who had applied and 10 have been shortlisted.

Is Infosys  among them?

I am actually not even involved with that selection process.

How much will the overall project cost?

Well, the cost of the project – one part of it will be technology, another part of this is the cost incurred by the registrar to enroll, and third part is the incentive we give to the people. We don’t know the exact figure but it will suffice to say that whatever may be the expenditure the benefit is well worth. Today India spends 100-200 thousand crores on various kind of social welfare programmes and subsidies. You can use UID to improve the efficiency of the systems. It will pay for itself very quickly.

Have you worked out some figure?

We can’t say because we don’t know the exact spending and benefit comes only when different people use the number.

There is a revenue model as well. I understand the UIDAI has estimated revenues of Rs 288 crore.

That’s an estimate. We thought something like address verification saves our clients money, so they can pay a bit for it.

What are the greatest challenges in this project – people, technology or process?

Everything, technology is on the cutting edge. This project is 10 times larger than any other biometric project. The largest biometric project is about 120 million (people). We are doing at a scale of 1.2 billion. Therefore, we have to have cutting edge technology and we have to make de-duplication work on a massive scale. That’s one thing. Enrollment is a big challenge. Enrolling a billion people at every nook and corner—in mountains, forests, islands —all kind of places....that’s a huge challenge. Then, coordination is a big issue, because you have to work with partners— state governments, oil companies, banks. The design of this whole ecosystem is very complicated. Adoption is a big challenge, getting people to use this number. Dealing with security and privacy and making sure that happens. This is a very complex project.

With regards to processes, how different is it to work in the government compared to the private sector?

Government processes are different from (those of) the private sector. But I think so far we have been able to move quickly because we have an excellent team. Mr Sharma has about 30 years of experience in civil services. He is supported by very able officers who know how the system works and they work very hard and make sure they meet all requirements of the system in terms of due process.

What are the risks involved in the project?

There is a technology risk, enrollment quality risk, there is a political risk.

Political risk in which way?

It will mean a lot of change and change management. Whenever there is a massive change, there will be a reaction.

You mentioned about the quality risk as well. All cards— PAN card, voter’s card—have a lot of errors.

First is de-duplication, that is, somebody does not have more than one number; and second is enrollment quality being standardised. So whether I am enrolled in a NREGA programme in Orissa or a bank in Mumbai, it is done the same way. For that we are going to provide the enrollment software, so that there is no room to change that.

Given that this is the largest biometric project ever, are we going on an uncharted path?

Absolutely. We have to find out how it works. De-duplication is a big challenge, because we want to make sure that you get only one number.

What about the pilot project?

Right now we are doing what is called the proof of concept (POC) in three states. After we do the proof of concept we will learn about the operational problems. In the meantime our data centre will come up, our software will get ready, and then only we can do pilots.

Which are the states where the POC is going on?

Three states, but we have not announced these states.

You are organising a national seminar.

We think we are creating a huge ecosystem around UID. The enrollment companies, the biometric vendors, IT companies, training companies. To lay down the roadmap on the same we are organising a big workshop on April 26.

Can citizens participate in the meet?

It’s organised by NISG (National Institute for Smart Government) for us. It is more business-to-business gathering.

You are chairman of the UIDAI, chairman of Technology Advisory Group for Unique Projects, president of NCAER (National Council for Applied Economic Research), and on board of ICRIER. What next?

This is not enough?!

Probably a member of parliament?

No! My thrills come from solving complex problems and I have been given enough to figure out. I am very happy where I am.

What is your role in the Technology Advisory Group?

That is a request from the finance minister. Because the finance sector has five very large projects —Tax Information Network, GST which is to come next year, the debt management office, NPS and expenditure information network. These are large projects and there is a realisation in the government that these large IT intensive projects require a different paradigm to conceptualise and manage. So the idea of this group is to come out with a template, playbook on how to do such projects.

But is this only for the finance ministry only?

These five projects are for the finance ministry. But the template we come out with can be used for a complex large government projects.

Where does it fit in with the National e-Governance Plan?

Well, the National e-Governance Plan is something which is run by the Department of IT and many of these projects are part of the National e-Governance Plan.

UID is the foundation of this whole plan.

Yes, it is. They have many projects and some of the projects I am looking at are common to that list.

You wrote ‘Imagining India’ in 2008. Are you planning to write another book?

Not for next five years.

How do you define yourself – author, bureaucrat, technocrat or political leader?

I just want to be a change agent.



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