May 25, 2020
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Silicon Dreams

The UID is on the anvil. But the tech czar now has other daunting tasks ahead.

Silicon Dreams
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
Silicon Dreams

For a man at the helm of a slew of crucial projects worth thousands of crores, Nandan Nilekani’s office at the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) in Delhi is starkly minimalist. The workstation is more reflective of the fast-moving IT sector where he has spent the last two decades. But then, Nilekani isn’t your typical government appointee either. He’s that rare Indian species—a technocrat in power. And he’s on a roll.

With support coming right from the top of the political citadel, Nilekani is the new poster boy of the UPA government. After less than a year in office with UIDAI, this newcomer’s powers and authority have been ramped up. He’s recently been asked to head the Technology Advisory Group for Unique Projects (TAGUP), which oversees technology and processes of mega projects for the finance ministry—the Tax Information Network, Goods and Services Tax, New Pension Scheme, National Treasury Management Agency and Expenditure Information Network.

“Nandan’s positioning himself as tech officer. He should focus on the uid, else he may end up spreading himself thin.”
Rajeev Chandrashekhar, Rajya Sabha MP

It’s the kind of recognition experienced politicians crave for. It’s also a reflection of the huge hopes on Nilekani ushering in a new form of governance within the traditional system, one normally identified with anomalies. The fact that this additional responsibility comes even before the first UID number—his primary project—has been rolled out indicates the government’s confidence in Nilekani’s ability to plan and execute. And now that he will oversee additional projects, it also intensifies the spotlight on Nilekani’s views on matters of technology.

The curiosity is understandable: people haven’t yet come to terms with Nilekani’s presence in the corridors of power. Not surprisingly, bureaucrats and politicians are chary of accepting a person from industry calling the shots in government. The corporate sector, though happy, is unsure about what to expect from him in a sarkari avatar.

While no one questions his credentials, the buzz in political and corporate circles is how Nilekani will manage so many big projects when the size and scale of the UID project—under which every Indian citizen would be given a unique identification number—itself is so huge. Has he bitten off more than he can chew? “I suspect Nandan is positioning himself as the government’s technology officer but he should focus only on the UID otherwise he may end up spreading himself thin,” says Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrashekhar.

“Chairing an advisory group is not a full-time occupation. Many in government do so while continuing their duty.”
Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Planning Commission

Says Vishnu Dusad, MD & CEO, Nucleus Software: “The UID itself is a big project. Just because the government has identified a good person in this field doesn’t mean he should be overloaded like this.” While Nilekani’s new role as chair of TAGUP is yet to be etched out, the government doesn’t think it will come in the way of the UID. “Chairing an advisory group is not a full-time occupation.  Many in government chair some group or the other while continuing with their full-time assignments. It reflects a realisation that if you really want to get top quality, you should choose the best,” Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia told Outlook.

But obviously there’s some discomfort across ministries who are unclear about how his job will affect their scheme of things. “The responsibility of TAGUP was with joint secretaries in the government, many of whom were not equipped to deal with it. But it’s a challenge for him (Nilekani) to work in a government environment,” says Shankar Aggarwal, joint secretary in the department of information technology. According to officials, the proposal to use Nilekani’s expertise came from the finance secretary—the ministry of IT wasn’t involved at all.

On a broader plane, many are wondering how Nilekani will be able to make a difference in these government-led IT projects, where there is a lack of commonality and interoperability between different states and departments. “He may not be able to do the same Infosys magic here but can try to bring in some discipline in government,” says T. Koshy, ED, NSDL, which established the Tax Information Network, one of the projects Nilekani will look into.

The problem also is that India does not have a technology policy for governance. Nilekani, however, is careful about defining his role in TAGUP and says he will look into the processes and issues relating to them.

“He may not be able to work the Infosys magic here but can try and bring in some discipline in government.”
T. Koshy, NSDL

As expected, with such big e-governance projects in the horizon, the old debate of open source versus proprietary software is getting resurrected. But despite Nilekani’s overwhelming engagement with proprietary software—Infosys has a lot of business with Microsoft—the open source lobby is quite enthusiastic at his arrival in the policy lounge. Says corporate affairs director, Red Hat, Venkatesh Hariharan: “I am hopeful that, as a veteran technologist, Nandan can bring some of these best practices to the world of e-government.” This optimism comes from Nilekani’s hard bargain for open source software in a 2006 report as chairman of a special group on e-governance under the Knowledge Commission. Advocating the case for open source software, the report had said: “Because of the enormous size and scope of e-governance effort in India...we must actively encourage, wherever possible, open source software implementations and open standards.”

But open source evangelists warn, “There could be political pressure if he openly favours open source software for government projects because of the monetary and political muscle of proprietary software companies”. And that is where Nilekani’s skills and strength as an administrator would be tested.

The UID project itself is a subject of debate as issues of privacy and mode of authenticating citizens’ identity have cropped up—topics to which satisfying answers haven’t been furnished. Also the nature of the UID seems to have been watered down considerably: it is not mandatory for citizens. The government, however, is confident that the UID will evolve. Says Ahluwalia: “In our view the UID project is a platform that will improve the efficiency of every other scheme. We want to treat this as a flagship project.”

Also, like the case of UID, many are raising conflict of interest issues when it comes to following a particular technology path and whether his umbilical link with Infosys would come in the way. These questions are natural—and not new. Says Saurabh Srivastava, chairman, CA India: “There would be questions, but he is aware of that and will take a route where everything will be an open book. He will be under extra pressure to be super-transparent on this.” Dusad agrees: “The moral responsibility on him is now higher—even if it comes to banning Infosys from such projects, he has to do it now.”

Nilekani’s clean image in the industry and in his dealings with the government over the years are his biggest strengths here. But more than anything else, many in civil society are hopeful that the technocrat will deliver—and show the way to a new, fresh approach to governance. Nilekani’s enhanced powers are a reflection of that enormous burden of expectations. His answer will come soon, when the first UID numbers start rolling out.

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