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Rebooting India: Realising a Billion Aspirations

RebootingIndia.png”” alt=””RebootingIndia”” />Having gained valuable insight in developing the unique identity card for a billion people in five years, Nandan Nilekeni, founding Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIAI) and Viral Shah, worked at the intersection of policy and technology leading to the design of the government’s payments and subsidy platforms using Aadhaar. They have proposed some big ideas that can redesign existing systems and save the government a mind boggling estimated Rs One trillion annually. This is equivalent to one per cent of the country’s GDP which is enough for two Golden Quadrilateral road systems across the country or in sending 200 Mangalyan missions to the Mars annually. It is also sufficient to provide minimal health insurance to every family in the country for three years. It is entirely technology driven.

This might well be one of the solutions that Prime Minister Narendra Modi might want to consider to get his much touted “”sab ke saath, sab ka vikas”” off the ground having remained dormant over the last 24 months since he assumed the high office on the majestic Raisina Hill on May 26, 2014. More and More businesses and industries are being run on software delivered as online services — from movies, to agriculture to national defence. Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technological companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures. India now boasts of the world’s third largest internet user base with over 190 million users, many of whom are on smartphones to get online and buy things; as much as 40 per cent of all e-commerce transactions in India are now conducted via mobile phones, bypassing computers altogether.

India is sitting on a demographic dividend and is expected to become the world’s youngest country by 2020, with 64 per cent of its population, roughly 800 million people of working age. “”That is 800 million knocks on the ceiling with a list of demands that include education, emplolyment, good health,better infrastructure, efficient governance and a corruption free society. The economy that is supposed to sustain the weight of these demands has been growing in single digit at around nine per cent a year at the best of times — a flimsy scaffold on which to construct dreams of a better life.

The question is how do we build a foundation strong enough to nurture these dreams and bring them to fruition? As an enabler of peoples’ aspirations, the authors insist this requires a radical rethink of the relationship between the government and its people compared to the one that still seems stuck in a bygone era in its reluctance to embrace technology’s transformative powers. Even for an urban, middle class Indian dealing with the government is cumbersome. Merely starting a new business in India takes weeks; most of this time is spent in completing the required paper work and legal formalities.

Whether it is paying taxes or negotiating complex labour law requirements “”we haven’t built a truly entrepreneur-friendly environment where anyone with a bright idea and some capital can easily start a business,”” emphasised Nilekeni, a former CEO of Infosys, and Shah, who is the co-inventor of the Julia programming language and co-founder of Fourth Lion Technologies. They believe technology can transform government by: (1) Scale – solutions that handle millions of people and billions of transactions; (2) Speed – solution that can be developed in months and years, not decades; (3) Cost — solutions that decrease process and service costs; (4) Enforceability — solutions that can be monitored in real time; (5) Diversity — solutions that work as platforms to foster innovation; (6) Autonomy — solutions that allow government (central, state, local) and its agencies to function independently; (7) Mobility –solutions that are accessible anywhere in the country; (8) Integration — solutions that incorporate the best components across the public private spectrum; (9) Collaboration — solutions that share information and develop partnerships across government; and (10) Inclusion — solutions that lowers entry barriers and widens access for all.

The profound shift of balance of power between the government and the people is only possible because of technology. “”We need to fix our country’s problems at great speed, at scales with high quality while providing solutions that are easy to access, independent of geography and at low cost. “”Technology the great leveller is our only hope of meeting these goals. Many of the states are well run today and the formation of the NITI Ayog and the GST reform will lead to further fiscal consolidation. States should be free to opt for these common platforms because they see a clear benefit in participation rather than through the carrot of money or the stick of the legislation.

The issue of fund flow can be resolved by cutting down the number of schemes and running them more efficiently; equally important, a great proportion of the central funds should be untied, eliminating restrictions on how the money can be spent and allowing states to use their money more effectively. Increasingly India is getting to the point where money itself is no longer the bottleneck. The finances of many states are quite robust. The Centre-State relationship has evolved to a point where “”we believe the centre must provide value beyond money through world class platform development.

The biggest barrier to ideas Nilekeni and Shah believe is mindsets. In a system that clings tenaciously to hierarchy, it is hard to recognise that a 25-year-old ‘techie’ might have better ideas than the veteran official in his fiftees. That value and knowledge lie not at the top of the silo, but at the boundaries across various disciplines. That problem solving is not about big budgets and a cast of thousands, but small teams with shoestring budgets — teams that include technologists, social activists, people who have built successful businesses, domain experts and bureaucrats.

Nilekeni and Shah have identified a dozen great challenges in their book. The first two — Aadhaar and PaHal — have already been scaled successfully. That leaves ten more grand challenges for which ten new start ups are required in the government, each with a team of ten dedicated multidisciplinarian champions. Such teams operating under the authority of the Prime Minister can drive the sweeping transformation and innovative thinking capable of fulfilling a billion aspirations. “”We are much better off dreaming, taking risks, and trying to realise a billion aspirations; at best we risk falling flat on our faces. Far more egregious, and most dangerous to our country, going about business as ususal, leaving a billion voices unheard and a billion frustrations unresolved,””observed Nilekeni and Shah.

The authors agree that the problems are enormous. And these can only be tackled by fast changing technological tools including cloud computing, big data and analytics to move towards a different kind of aggregation, one that is gaining traction in the private sector.

Book:Rebooting India: Realising a billion aspirations.
Author:Nandan Nilekeni and Viral Shah
Publisher:Penguin Group
Pages:337
Price:799-INR

TR

(T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator.)

By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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