“AADHAAR: A Catalyst for Efficient e-Governance”

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Nandan Nilekani
Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI)

You got into the government and became the driving force behind the UIDAI programme, but now you have expanded your footprint to GST, PDS and many other areas of the governance. How do you see your journey so far in the area of governance?
The time I have spent in the government has been very fulfilling and satisfying. We began with the UIDAI project, which is moving at good pace. Over 200 million people have been enrolled and they have been issued Aadhaar numbers. We are launching online applications; we are also starting the systems for electronic credit of money to bank accounts. A lot of developments are taking place. I have extended my footprint in other areas of governance, but that is also co-related to the UIDAI initiative. This is quite natural as the Aadhaar numbers are the basis for many government programmes. The whole idea behind this Unique ID drive is to enable people to easily access all kinds of public services like bank account, telephone connection, PDS, etc.

That was the inclusion part of it. The other aim was to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of govern- ment departments. It is a fact that government expenditure on social welfare programme related to education, employ- ment, healthcare, food distribution and others have gone up considerably in the last 10 years. Such programmes can only become effective when there is an effective framework that enables subsidies to be directly paid to the beneficiaries through electronic means. That is how the idea of having Aadhaar numbers originally came up.

You have also done some important work on electronic collection of toll taxes.
I headed a committee for automated collection of toll taxes and submitted the report two years back. The report stated that by using RFID based systems we could minimise the  waiting time at toll stations. The system has already been  implemented in many toll centres. Vehicles can simply  breeze through the toll station and the charges get auto-  matically deducted from the user’s account.

Coming back to Aadhaar, what kind of Computer Systems. response are you seeing from state  governments, now that more than 20 crore  enrolments have already been done? 
The response so far has been very encouraging. From the onset, we had made this project very collaborative, with the result that we had a large base of stakeholders. The state governments are our principal partners, as they are instrumental in enrolling people into the Aadhaar system and they are also making usage of Aadhaar based authen- tication for a variety of applications like disbursement of social security, payments of pensions and in PDS.

There is a massive investment plan being made in UIDAI and other projects that entail significant usage of ICT. How do you see the process of governance evolving over the next few years?
Well I think we are situated at a very interesting point as far as governance is concerned. Lot of pioneering work is being done in India for making use of ICT to improve the quality and efficacy of governance. The National e-Governance Programme is underway. We have set up quality infrastructure like NICNET, the State Data Centres and few others. The Customer Service Centres are a great manifestation of the rising scope of e-Governance in the country. The CSCs are already very popular with the citizens. With all these developments we are reaching a point where we can really take governance to the next level. Technol- ogy is now ready to play the role of the backbone of governance.

The government departments do not need large and cumbersome IT infrastructure to conduct their business; they can simply start using applications that are available in the cloud. This can be a very cost- effective way of managing governance. The connec- tivity that is available through mobile phones is also a great boon. Soon we will have the entire country connected through fibre broadband. The seamless connectivity that we have can be deployed to enable people in rural areas to conduct tasks like inquir- ing about their PDS balance, making payments for electricity, mobile bills and doing much else. The emergence of low-cost, feature rich smartphones and tablets is also a very exciting development from governance point of view.

The USA and many countries in Europe have been leveraging ICT for many decades. They have now reached a stage where they have a lot of public services available online. How much time will it take for governance in India to reach a similar stage of development?
Actually in some sense India is unique in enjoy- ing the benefits of not having any kind of legacy system. For instance, let us take the example of healthcare. We don’t have the electronic health record system that is a hallmark of the healthcare establishments in Europe and the USA. The West- ern countries are shackled with a massive elec- tronic health record system, which in most cases is not interoperable. Some of these records are with hospitals, some with pharmacy, some with insur- ance companies, and so on. Now they are trying to bring interoperability to their healthcare records. So the advantage that we in India have is that we can learn from the mistakes that have been made in the advanced countries, and from day one we can design a system that is interoperable, secure, private and user-friendly.

I actually see the lack of application penetration as a good thing because it facilitates the develop- ment of applications from the ground level. UIDAI is a good example in this area. Countries like the US have had the ID system as social security num- bers since 1930’s. Since we are building the system in this decade, we can think of mobile applications, online system applications, and authentication sys- tems like biometrics, all of which were unthinkable till 3-4 years back. So in some sense it is important to look at the trend of the technology and then intercept that trend at the right level of maturity so that it can be applied more effectively.

The areas of health and education are of crucial concern to our nation. How do you see UIDAI contributing to these core areas?
UIDAI is basically an identity infrastructure; it provides a unique identity to every person in India. In the field of healthcare, it will enable everyone to store his or her health records in the cloud. The health related information will be completely secure and private, only some elements of it can be accessed by the concerned parties. For instance, if someone is allergic to certain medicine, he can, at the time of his check-up at the hospital, ask the medical staff to look into his health record in the cloud. With this information, the hospital staff will be able to prescribe the right kind of medication and they will also be able to further update the patient health record in the cloud. As far as education is concerned, large amount of content is already available online. Now we have to devise ways of leveraging all this content for bringing fur- ther improvement in the scope of education.

You have been quoted as saying that the Aadhaar cards could become the app store for e-Governance systems. What kind of e-Governance apps do you have in mind?
The UIDAI or the Aadhaar based identification system is highly conducive for building a whole range of apps, which make it easier for citizens and government agencies to interact with each other. Many such apps have already become functional. For instance, the system of paying the benefits to poor workers through electronic means, and enabling them to withdraw money through the help of Business Correspondents, can be seen as an app. The mobile verification system is also an app. The system of providing PDS benefits by using Aadhaar based online authentication is also an app.

Last three years havebeen the phase of enrolment. All of us are optimistic that the actual benefits from the UIDAI project will soon start appearing. How long, do you think it will take before we can start having active usage of Aadhaar cards?
In another two or three year period, the Aadhaar cards will be actively used. People will start having their benefits from government directly credited to their accounts electronically through Aadhaar based systems. Even PDS will use Aadhaar to identify and compensate the beneficiaries. The telecom industry has already started pilot projects, which make use of Aadhaar number for KYC, and to even sell you a SIM card.

The advanced countries in the world have rather large budgets for managing their IT infrastructure. In comparison, our spending on IT is quite small. Do you think that with our low IT budget, we will be able to take maximum advantage of Aadhaar based identification and delivery systems?
We should not be measuring the actual effectiveness of our IT systems by our budgets. The effectiveness comes from efficient planning and the deployment of optimal solutions. If we look at Aadhaar programme, it costs us between `100 to `150 per person for enrolment. This is actu- ally quite reasonable, if we take into account the massive scale at which we are working. If such a project were to be implemented in any Western country, the costs would be a lot higher.

The government has set up a committee to frame a human resource (HR) policy for e-Governance projects that would enable the movement of private sector executives into  government and vice-versa on an unprecedented scale, apart from leading to initiatives that will better harness bureaucratic talent. You are part of that committee. So what kind of challenges do you see in its implementation?
Technology cannot be taken in isolation. We also need efficient manpower to implement the best technology. All this large amount of activity in e-governance requires deployment of sophisti- cated technology, which presents fairly complex challenges. They require some expertise which can be sourced from outside, but to manage them you need capacity inside. The HR committee aims to harness the manpower and the talent both within the government and in the private sector As it is being envisaged, the committee will also look at more outsourcing of government projects, which are not core, to private sector companies. The truth is that the country is implementing mas- sive technology projects, and inadequate technical skills were identified as one of the pain points for their successful implementation.

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