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Nandan Nilekani's new world

Soutik Biswas | 10:55 UK time, Thursday, 24 September 2009

Nandan NilekaniNandan Nilekani's new world is a musty government building in Delhi. Its quiet corridors are peopled by drowsy minions and its whitewashed rooms have file-laden desks, gaudy sofas and, if you are lucky, a thin swivel chair, the top of which is covered with a white towel. In anterooms, a retinue of men yawn, drink cups of tea, read newspapers, ferry photocopies from one place to another, take calls and yawn again. On their tables lie stacks of more dog-eared files; empty boxes of computers and printers lie heaped in a corner. Welcome to the government of India, Mr Nilekani.

The building housing India's Planning Commission - the name itself is a throwback to the days of the sleepy command economy - cannot be an easy place to work for a man who severed a near three-decade-long association with one of the world's top technology firms, Infosys, which he co-founded, to join the government of India. The dour trappings of public office must be a revelation for a man who, according to the Forbes rich men's list from last May, is worth $1.1bn.

Mr Nilekani helped run a $5bn company before his new job. As the head of the new Unique Identification Authority of India, which plans to crunch out identity numbers for more than a billion Indians, his budget for the first year is $26m. Then there is India's Kafkaesque bureaucracy and partisan politics to negotiate.

It is a daunting task, Mr Nilekani agrees, when I go to meet him in his austere new lair. His table has the regulation shiny pen stand and glass paperweights. The first day he joined work, he yanked the white towel off the top of his chair, as photographers clicked gleefully. He doesn't tell me whether it was a symbolic gesture or a spur of the moment reflex. Mr Nilekani says he has taken the job as a challenge, despite the fact that it is a tough one to be conducted under the unblinking gaze of an increasingly unforgiving public and media.

It is not easy to find out why he took the job: the unique identification number seems to have been his pet project for a long time. He gave it away on page 367 of his first book Imagining India, published last year. For the next eight pages, he waxes eloquent on his idea of a "single citizen ID".

Mr Nilekani talks about Indians grappling with multiple identities - one for a ration card, one for the passport, one for the tax payer and so on. A former election commissioner tells him that our database is in these disconnected silos. This also leads to, as Mr Nilekani says, "plenty of phantoms" or fake cards.

He believes a national smart ID could be transformational - even though only 2% of Indians subscribe, say, to the internet. It compels the state to improve the quality of services, gives citizens better access to welfare schemes, and creates deeper awareness of rights and entitlements. A national ID system, says Mr Nilekani, would plug leaks in the distribution system and make "redundant" our dependence on the "moral scruples of the bureaucrats".Indian fisherman with his local ID card

I don't quite know whether the brief Mr Nilekani has been given matches up to his ideal national ID card outlined in his book. For one, the number will be given to all residents of India; and not all citizens. So it will possibly not help in detecting illegal immigrants, and will play little role in securing the country. Also it will not be a "benefit-linked smart card", as he writes in his book, but just a number.

But the spring in his step and the shine in his eyes hint at a job Mr Nilekani is looking forward to. "It's a complex governance challenge," he tells me, as we settle down in his sparse room. He is excited by the technological challenge of creating the largest biometric database in the world. "Technology on this level has never been done before. There will be lots of hurdles, setbacks, glitches. As a project this is the biggest and most complex project I have ever undertaken."

Doesn't he miss his old company? Mr Nilekani doesn't blink. "I had a terrific 29-year stint at Infosys. It was an emotional and gut-wrenching move to come out of it," he says. But working in big government cannot be easy for somebody like him? "Government is really a big and enormous difference. It has its challenges. Nothing I have encountered till now is something I had not expected. I am in this project for five years." Mr Nilekani is an astute diplomat.

It will be interesting to see how Mr Nilekani re-educates himself in the ways and workings of the government and real India. He famously inspired Thomas Friedman to write his best-selling The World Is Flat by telling him that the "global playing field was being levelled by technology." The man formerly known as the Bill Gates of Bangalore will possibly now be surprised to find that the digital divide is the latest addition to India's deepening inequalities.

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