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Nandan Nilekani’s appointment to head the Unique Identity Authority (UIDA) of India has been received positively....

Written by Prodyut Bora |
June 29, 2009 3:11:19 am

Nandan Nilekani’s appointment to head the Unique Identity Authority (UIDA) of India has been received positively not just by the corporate sector — anyone would feel happy with the success of a member of his tribe — but also by the media and the informed public. This makes Nilekani’s spectacular journey from code jock to corporate honcho to public intellectual to governmental leader complete.

The idea of a unified and unique identification system was first mooted by the Ministry of Home Affairs under L.K. Advani towards the end of his tenure,and given the name of Multipurpose National Identity Card (MNIC). In fact,the MHA set up a pilot project under the aegis of the Office of the Census Commissioner and Registrar General of India,before planning a nationwide rollout.

Unfortunately,UPA-I let it languish. But,surprisingly,towards the end of its tenure,the UPA suddenly woke up and announced the setting up of a UIDA under the Planning Commission. The logic of setting up a parallel authority when a governmental body (the census commissioner’s office) was already entrusted with a similar work was unexplained. Nor were we told if and how the Unique ID project would be different from the MNIC project. It could have been a classic governmental case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing,or a deliberate policy to kill the MNIC just because it was an NDA baby.

In any case,the BJP’s IT Vision,released during the campaign,made a strong case for an ID system,placing it at the centre of its proposed eGovernance plan. The idea was that it would help improve delivery of targeted social welfare interventions. In fact,the plan went ahead and made three corollary promises: (a) a bank account for each citizen,(b) direct cash transfers of welfare grants,and (c) a smart phone to each BPL family,hoping that together they would plug the leakage made famous by Rajiv Gandhi when he said that of every rupee spent by government,only 15 paisa reached the intended beneficiary.

As someone who was closely associated with the formulation of that plan,I am sad that the BJP couldn’t get the people’s mandate to operationalise it. But I am happy that this government has both picked up someone so eminently qualified to lead the project and,more importantly,recognised its potential to fix government service delivery. For that is what it is,not just a multi-billion dollar project impacting the placid fortunes of our domestic IT majors,nor just the glamour of a corporate chieftain making a lateral move to the top echelons of government.

This should be thought of as “change management”; were it used by all governmental departments to track their interactions with citizens,it could be among the biggest game-changers for this government. Welfare spending could be tracked to the individual level,as well as aggregated under different geographical areas,social groupings,economic categories,etc. However,creating the system is one thing,applying it to the machinery of government is quite another.

It is still early to say whether this project would go the way of most other government projects,but several things give me hope. One,Nilekani will be able to draw in the best from the IT industry. It is high time some of the lessons learnt there were applied to administrative processes. Two,he has the PM’s backing,without which the project would have been dead before it started. One of the main reasons Sreedharan has been able to execute the Delhi Metro the way he has is his political backing.

But the reason I am most hopeful is that Nilekani’s move probably marks the start of greater mobility of talent between academia,industry and government. This is not the first time that a private sector manager has moved to assume a position in a public sector undertaking or government (Lever’s Prakash Tandon headed the State Trading Corporation; ITC’s Yogi Deveshwar took a sabbatical from ITC to Air India; and R.V. Shahi left BSES to become the Union power secretary); this is probably the first time that a business leader has moved laterally to assume a role with cabinet rank.

The principles of parliamentary democracy demand that only elected representatives assume leadership roles in government. But this should not be a barrier

to importing top-rate talent from other sectors like academia,business,the military and even

NGOs,and sufficiently empowering them to deliver their mandate. Condoleezza Rice could move from academia to the cabinet and then back to academia; we could be even more creative.

The writer is the national convenor of the BJP’s IT Cell

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