‘Rebooting India’: Excerpts From Nandan Nilekani’s New Book

Technocrat Nandan Nilekani, in Rebooting India – Realizing a Billion Aspirations, a book he has co-authored with Viral Shah, suggests that the Centre step up benefits accrued due to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) project to build a centralised voter ID data. Nilekani, who contested the 2014 elections, is the Founding Chairman of the UIDAI and co-founder of Infosys.

In the book written by him and his UIDAI colleague Viral Shah, Nilekani suggests that “using the centralised system capable of storing Aadhaar data of 1.2 billion Indians, will help eliminate distortions, biases and fraud, eliminating the entire political economy that has muddied voter registration.”

Today, we are a nation on the move. In the last two decades, India’s urban population has exploded, thanks to a steady influx of people migrating […] at last count, India’s migrants numbered over 300 million. Technology has managed to keep pace with this exponential rate of migration […] Your bank account may have been set up in Mumbai, but you can check your bank balance anywhere in the country. In comparison to this fluidity, government services remain highly rigid, inescapably tethered to a physical location […] The private sector has successfully employed technology to deliver services that transcend geographical barriers; it is time the government followed suit.

Rebooting India – Realizing a Billion Aspirations

The blueprint he provides to achieve the same is put forth in this manner:

[…] A voter ID should allow you to vote no matter where you completed the registration process and where you live now. To address these issues, we propose the creation of a centralized voter management system, explained in further detail in the accompanying diagram. Voter registration is such a cumbersome process. What if you could enrol for a voter ID or update your details – a new address or phone number –not only at the local municipal office, but also at a public sector bank, a petrol pump, a citizen service centre, the post office, or the local railway station? The bottlenecks that exist currently would be removed and the enrolment process could easily be scaled up to cover the entire nation.

Rebooting India – Realizing a Billion Aspirations

In the book, Shah and Nilekani reiterate that they have discussed the roadmap to a cashless economy with electronic payments.

MicroATMs will bring banking services to every doorstep in the country. With e-KYC, we will begin the march towards a paperless society, where a range of services, from opening a bank account to availing of a government benefit, can be carried out electronically – no more waiting in line for hours clutching reams of paperwork.

Rebooting India – Realizing a Billion Aspirations

Nilekani then touches upon another how to mend our social safety nets to save the expense of crores to the already burdened exchequer.

He points out to how capping the LPG subsidy through the PaHal initiative by this government has achieved just that.

Currently, everyone is eligible for subsidized LPG, whether they need it or not. By limiting the subsidy only to those who cannot afford to pay the market price for LPG, the government can potentially save considerable funds that can be deployed for other purposes– witness the ‘Give It Up’ campaign launched by the current government, exhorting those who don’t need the LPG subsidy to give it up for the welfare of the country. This type of fine-tuning is possible only in a direct transfer system.

Rebooting India – Realizing a Billion Aspirations

The book also illustrates the arithmetic behind the government’s achievement:

As of 2011, 89 per cent of all LPG consumption was domestic, out of which the poorest 50 per cent consumed only 25 per cent of the available subsidized LPG.

Rebooting India – Realizing a Billion Aspirations

[…] The implementation of an Aadhaar-based direct transfer model for LPG subsidies is already underway; the initial rollout began in June 2013, covering eighteen districts in ten different states of India. It was rolled out nationwide on 1 January 2015 and now covers 120 million customers. The country’s chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian said that the savings in 2014-15 could be as much as Rs 127 billion.

Rebooting India – Realizing a Billion Aspirations

Nilekani also emphasises that no attempt at subsidy reform can be successful unless it tackles one of the most fundamental flaws in the system – the lack of a uniform and reliable method to identify beneficiaries.

The book argues that a single, centralised voter enrolment system, running the same multilingual software across the country, would allow you to enrol at multiple points. The bottlenecks that exist currently would be removed and the enrolment process could easily be scaled up to cover the entire nation. In such a system, no one enrolment agency would hold a monopoly; there would be no incentive for distortions, biases and fraud, eliminating the entire political economy that has muddied voter registrations. When we already have a centralized system capable of storing the Aadhaar data of 1.2 billion Indians, there is no reason why we can’t build a similar system for voter ID data as well.

The duo also suggests that in order to ensure that these projects do not sink under the weight of bureaucratic gravity, it is essential that they be anchored under the national leader, the Prime Minister.

When we look at some of India’s earlier government start-ups, what stands out is the close rapport between the prime minister and the leader of the initiative – the warm relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr Homi Bhabha, who led India’s atomic energy programme, is one example. It is this kind of dedicated support at the highest levels that allows for entrepreneurial projects within government to succeed.

Rebooting India – Realizing a Billion Aspirations

The book suggests that such teams, operating under the authority of the prime minister, can drive the sweeping transformation and innovative thinking capable of fulfilling a billion aspirations.

It ends with a warning:

We are much better off dreaming, taking risks, and trying to realize a billion aspirations; at best we risk falling flat on our faces. Far more egregious, and most dangerous to our country, is going about ‘business as usual’, leaving a billion voices unheard and a billion frustrations unresolved.