India's Nilekani on 'the Mother of All Projects'

Nandan Nilekani is the de facto chief information officer for India. Last July, he left Indian outsourcing company Infosys (INFY), where he was serving as chairman after spending five years as CEO, to become chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, an ambitious government project to create IDs and supporting biometric data, such as fingerprints, for more than 1.1 billion Indians. Nilekani, 54, and his team of several dozen engineers hope to launch next year and provide 600 million IDs within the first five years. Meantime, he has also started advising other parts of the government—including the Finance Ministry and Transportation Ministry—on how to use information technology to improve their operations. It’s a humongous project, the mother of all projects.

The average Indian citizen typically has multiple identity cards, including a voter ID, a tax ID, a ration card, passport, driving licence and others. Yet there is no central database, which has created “phantoms” on voter lists and welfare schemes.The 16-digit Unique Identification number that the Government proposes to give Indian citizens could become mandatory for opening a bank account, getting your passport or even your driving licence, among others. The project, which has drawn the interest of mobile services firms and technology giants including Tata Consultancy Services, Microsoft and Google, is expected to better target and reduce waste in India’s multi-billion dollar welfare schemes, including pensions. The UID project, named “Aadhar”, is estimated to cost some $2.2-$4.4 billion to implement, but will bring in an equal amount in savings annually from the elimination of duplicate and false identities, said Samiran Chakraborty, head of research at Standard Chartered. UIDAI(Unique Identification Authority of India) is working with Census 2011 survey, as well as local government bodies and NGOs to reach millions, including an estimated 410 million people living on less than $1.25 a day, a blot on India’s otherwise compelling growth story. Recently it had also signed a MOU with LIC of India to use its database for verification purpose. Beyond developing the smart cards, the challenge is making the back-end infrastructure secure and scalable, ensuring privacy and integrating agents who issue the numbers, said Nilekani, who has the rank of a cabinet minister. Among the biggest challenges is securing “clean” fingerprints as part of the biometric identification that will also include an image of the face and of the two irises, in the dusty conditions of rural India, where nearly two-thirds of the population lives. Operators have also been trained to deal with labourers with deeply calloused hands, for example, or women wearing burqas, said Tripuraneni, who calls the UID “the mother of all databases”.

Nilekani said it will take “years and not one day” for the entire process to change. He said about 600 million of the about 1.2 billion population will be covered under the project in the next five years.