Interview: Nandan Nilekani On 'Rebooting India'

Interview: Nandan Nilekani On 'Rebooting India'

In Rebooting India: Realizing a Billion Aspirations (Allen Lane, Rs 799) authors Nandan Nilekani, founding chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (Aadhaar), and Viral Shah, a computer scientist who worked on the UIDAI project, draw on their experience of building Aadhaar to come up with low-cost, tech-intensive solutions to problems that hobble India in its polity and governance. In an email conversation with Antara Das, Nilekani expands on the central ideas in his book. Edited excerpts:

Q: What is the central idea behind Rebooting India: Realizing a Billion Aspirations?

 A: In our book, my co-author Viral Shah and I say that it is only through the use of technology that we can attain change at the speed and scale we need as a country to realize a billion aspirations. We talk about the potential of leapfrogging with technology in Rebooting India. For example, we leapfrogged wired telephony with mobile phones. For many millions of Indians, smartphone is likely to be the bank, and we will leapfrog the branch. We are likely to leapfrog traditional organized retail with ecommerce.

Q: Rebooting India repeatedly talks about how government is often a burial ground for good intentions and ideas. How do you think the ideas in your book will stand out, or make a difference?

A: Our book is not about ideas only. Ideas and intentions are not sufficient. Business as usual is not sufficient. What we lay out is a practical roadmap to solve our problems at speed and scale to meet a billion aspirations. These are based on hard experience working for several years in government. We outline 12 platforms, and we believe that not trying is much worse than trying and failing.

Q: Concerns over privacy and the absence of a data protection law plagued Aadhar through its conception and birthing. Do you think such legislation ought to be in place before we proceed to make the most of a sharing economy through newer tech platforms, or can they be concomitant?

A: We start our book focussed on aspirations of a billion people. They are banging on the roof of the glass ceiling to do better for themselves. This is what government is for and about: to build platforms and solutions so that people can create better lives for themselves. People do not want technical or legal answers about why their lives are not improving, or why the pace of change is so slow. They want results. Due to the nature of government, and the checks and balances and distribution of power, it is likely that any project will step on toes and run into turf issues. The UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) successfully worked with the system and various issues to roll out Aadhaar. After all, we must remember that legislation, laws, rules, etc. are enabling frameworks for carrying out projects, and Aadhaar was carried out fully within the ambit of all these frameworks, with full compliance.

Q: You have suggested the idea of a team of start-ups within the government that reports to the prime minister. If such a move raises the bogey of ‘big government’, how would you address that?

A: As Viral and I say in our book, this idea is not new. We have merely documented a practice that has existed since independence: the Atomic Energy Commission, the space program, the green revolution, the golden quadrilateral were all start-ups within the government. We strongly believe that the issue is not of big or small government, but of having a government that delivers on people’s aspirations. The question we should be asking ourselves is ‘Is our government building platforms and solutions that will help improve the lives of a billion people?’ In fact, we quote from the concluding chapter:

“While we speak of radically transforming government, let’s also take a step back to ask a fundamental question: What is government, and what is its purpose? This is a question that we ourselves have mulled over during our tenure in government. Depending on who you ask, there are a multitude of answers. Some describe government as a collection of institutions—the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, governed by checks and balances that regulate the separation of powers. Some describe government through the lens of the economy, labelling it socialist, capitalist, and so on. For some, government is described by its political inclinations, left wing or right wing. For the common man, the government is the local politician and the local bureaucrats with whom he regularly interacts. For the poor, the government is a provider of services, even if the quality of these services is sometimes below par. For the rich, the government is often an inefficient and corrupt obstacle blocking their way. For the shopkeeper, government is the tax collector demanding bribes; for the salaried employee, it is the authority that claims a large chunk of the monthly pay cheque while providing little to nothing in return.

These answers are all true, but they are also all false. That is because, much like the fable of the six blind men and the elephant, our view of government depends upon which part of it we interact with. Putting all the pieces together, we believe that the fundamental nature of government is a platform, where an entire nation comes together and designs laws and institutions meant to channel resources towards the greatest good of every citizen. In turn, every citizen has the right to question this system when it fails to deliver.”

Q: You advocate the use of technology for innovation in every sector—politics, education, health, energy and judiciary. If you were to prioritise, which sector would you say is crying out for tech-led reforms?

A: We do not think there is any need to prioritise. We are a country of smart people, and surely 10 projects that we outline can all be carried out simultaneously.

Q: What kind of intervention did you have in mind when you had decided to contest the Lok Sabha elections in 2014?

Q: A year and a half into the present government’s tenure, what aspects of its performance would you regard as ‘more of the same’ and where do you think it is bucking the trend?

Antara Das is the Books and Culture Editor of Swarajya
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