Imagine creating a system to track 1.2 billion people, photographing them, fingerprinting them, cataloging them and giving them all IDs.
Nandan Nilekani is not just imagining that system. He is tasked with making it a reality in India.
Nilekani is the chairman of India's Unique Identification Authority. Nilekani's previous claim to fame was as one of the founders of Infosys, India's pioneering technology firm. He recently talked to Fareed Zakaria on Sunday's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" show. Here’s an edited version of their conversation, which can also be viewed by downloading the entire show on iTunes.
ZAKARIA: So explain how does one even think about this. There are so many parts to it, but let's just first start with the technical things. So you are taking India's entire population, which previously had rarely been counted, and you are going to try and give every single person a biometric ID.
NILEKANI: That's right. We have enrolled 200 million people in the last three years since the project began. And we are using the biometrics to give them a unique number so that they don't end up having more than one number. But what's most important is that this is a digital online ID. So we're taking people, many of whom have no ID whatsoever, and taking them to the digital world. So it's like a leapfrogging of identity.
ZAKARIA: So why is this so important for India? What one hears about it is that these people are supposed to get loans, or grants or various things from the government. And most of it never gets to them. And I remember the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi saying that of the one dollar that we spend on poor people, on average the poor person receives 10 cents.
NILEKANI: Fifteen I think. Well it should be fifteen.
ZAKARIA: And the middle men take up all the rest of the money.
NILEKANI: Well actually, there are two primary drivers for this. One is that we still have millions of people who don't have a formal identity or acknowledgement of their existence by the state. And unless you have a formal acknowledgement or existence you can't get a bank account or a loan. You can't get a mobile phone. You can't get your entitlements. You can't get a job. You can't rent a house.
So everything is linked to your basic identity. So this in some sense you can think of as a massive inclusion program to get the poor, and the marginalized and the identity-less into the formal economy. So that's one part of it.
The other part is that the Indian government spends something like $60 billion a year on entitlements and benefits to millions of people. And they need to make sure it reaches the right beneficiaries. So by having this ID system we can make sure that people's scholarships, pensions, employment guarantee schemes all direct to the right person, either into the bank account or whatever account. So it both makes government expenditure more efficient, effective and equitable, and it's a massive inclusion exercise.
ZAKARIA: How difficult is it? You were an entrepreneur in a space in India that is famously free of regulation because the Indian government basically didn't realize it existed: the high-tech space. ... Now you're in the heart of government. How much more difficult is it to deal with the bureaucracies? Or which is worse, the bureaucratic obstacles or political obstacles?
NILEKANI: Well, I think the way I see it simply is in the private sector, the number of people you're to come into is much less. You convince your management team, your board, your investors, your analysts and you go and do something, go in new election, buy a company, whatever.
In the public space, you are answerable to a lot more stakeholders: the government, parliament, bureaucracy, activists, journalists, the judicial system, the investigators. So I think what I learned is the amount of time you are to invest in evangelizing and consensus building is hugely more in the public space. And crafting a strategy which is sort of acceptable to everybody really takes a great deal of time. And that's where the big difference to me between the two worlds.