Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Issues with Nandan Nilekani in the Unique Identification Project

I was reading through an interview by Nandan Nilekani, the Chairman of the ambitious Unique Identification Authority project by the Government of India. The objective is to provide a unique identification number (not a card) to every citizen of India, so delivery of government services would be efficient. Nothing like it, if it works.

While I expected the interview to be a normal one, I was shocked with lack of clarity in Nandan's answers. Here is the link to the interview.

Unique ID will enable more effective public delivery

Let me tell you why I found it shocking..

1. Nandan is too curt.

Nandan holds a position which is the equivalent of a Cabinet Minister. It was not a democratic way of selection and he has some sweeping rights to implement the project. Hence, Nandan needs to explain himself more unlike his Corporate days when he could afford to be curt. Through out the interview and in other interviews with the media, he doesn't seem to expand into his answers.

2. Lack of answers to pertinent questions on security, misuse, replication, etc.

Nandan never answers any of these questions in detail, while these are absolutely legitimate questions in a country like India. Absolutely crucial post-implementation also as it is a pubic system and there is bound to be vested interests or politicians who would like to take advantage of it. It is corruption served on a silver platter, if accessed inappropriately.

3. Nandan does not talk about how other smart card projects will be tied into the system

While he does talk about the source of his numbers (PAN, ration cards, etc), he does not talk about the huge investments the Central and State Govts are making in delivery of social services (RSBY, NREGS, etc) through smart cards already. Only if these systems are tied together in the beginning, can the cost remain low and efficiency high. We cant afford to operate 10 large parallel IT-based projects for a population of 1 billion.

4. Nandan uses the Govt as a gauntlet in certain instances -
"The Government has come to the conclusion that this project is stragetic and worth it. I have been invited to lead this project. I believe that it is viable and I will do my best to make it viable.")
He seems to already buy into the idea of this system rather than being the critical outsider so it would add more credibibility to the implementation. I am sure he is capable of doing more diligence into it, if his past is any example. Else, its a one-time investment of Rs.1.5 Lakh Crore Rupees over five years into something that 'could' not be as beneficial on ground.

Or maybe it will.

Nandan Nilekani will do a lot of things right and maybe way better than others, but doesn't mean he wont do some things wrong either. The media that is supposed to be critical about the whole project, has just made him a darling you cant ask tough questions to. Or they just dumb to understand the technicalities. The devil's in the details, afterall. Nobody would know better than Nandan, or atleast I hope so.