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How Aadhar Was Planned To ‘Solve India’s Problems’: Nilekani Explains In New Book

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By Deepak Venkateswaran:

Aadhar card Nandan Nilekani
Image Source: Priyanka Parashar/Mint via Getty Images

“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” – Alexander Hamilton

It is not every day that one comes across a book that is an appropriate blend of a vision for development and the pragmatism to give shape to it. This is what ‘Rebooting India’ is all about. The author had caught my imagination with his first book ‘Imagining India’. It was only obvious that I grabbed one of the earliest copies of his second book when it hit the shelves.

Nandan Nilekani is known as the brain behind Adhaar more than his contribution to the Indian IT Industry. The book talks about his vision to deliver a Unique Identification Number for each Indian, and how he started building his team (comprising of the best in Industry and some Government experts) even before the formal approval from the Government of India. The reader is taken through a narrative of how a start-up organisation was set up inside the Government system to which is perceived to be rigid and antiquated.

Bursting a myth:

The biggest misunderstanding of Adhaar most Indians have had is the fact that it is an ID Proof (like PAN, License, etc.). Nandan has been quite articulate and clear in busting that myth through this book. He clarifies that the purpose of Adhaar is just that of authentication and that it will not serve any purpose the other ID Proofs serve.

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The data collected during the enrolment process will be stored in a stable and secure server, called CIDR (Central ID Repository), across a network of data centres in Bangalore. With the approval of competent authorities, the biometric data can be shared with the concerned department to improve and provide better services.

The process has been set up by using the best consultants and professionals for each of the following processes:

1) Enrolment: It will be handled by a series of enrolment agencies who will be certified by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) as authorised.

2) Biometric Service Providers (BSPs): To provide the Automatic Biometric Identification System (ADIS) and Multimodal Software Development Kit (MSDK).

3) Registrars: They are representatives of state departments. Local authorities who are closer to the lower tiers of the government, with support from a network of sub-registrars, will take up the collection of Demographic data and document verification of eligible people.

Opposition to the Project:

In a country like India, it is too hard to reach a consensus on anything. This was the same in the case of Adhaar with the left and right of Political spectrum coming up with their concerns and oppositions.

With a combination of sustained dialogue involving all stakeholders, policy makers and using the traditional art of convincing the bosses with the bigger picture, the team set about taking everyone on board with consensus. This part of the book re-affirms the theory that people, more than buying the ideas, put their faith on the individual executing it. By all means, Nandan Nilekani was the right fit for this then.

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Building the Right Team:

It is certainly not easy to deliver unless you have the right people, and Nandan made sure that he had the perfect blend. Some of the notable names he has repeatedly mentioned in the book include:

1. Viral Shah (Head of Bio-Metrics at UIDAI)
2. Srikanth Nadhamuni
3. Ram Sewak Sharma (Director General of UIDAI)

A combination of experts from various verticals such as audit and accounts, banking, IT, bioinformatics, income tax, etc. were brought on board to create a lean but strong team.
This is extremely important for any project or organisation to smoothly function, as individuals with complimentary skill sets hold the key to complete the big picture.

Technology in Governance:

The latter part of the book is all about how technology can transform governance, and how Adhaar can be put to use for delivering an entire range of services to the common man. Right from plugging leakages in PDS system to banking services; smart grid electricity to free and smooth conduct of elections, Nilekani has a crystal clear idea of how Adhaar can fit into all models. Each chapter of the book is a new idea in itself; coupled with brilliant infographics for all readers to connect with.

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By extension, the author has envisioned a cashless economy where every Indian citizen, irrespective of his proximity to a physical bank, is linked to the mainstream finance.

This would be probably one of the models where everyone would agree “One Size Fits all”; with a catch that the right alteration should be done by each division of the government to put the data to good use. Nilekani takes the vision to a whole new level where he talks about the concept of bringing in a start-up culture into the government, with each one performing a specific task and in the end everything falling into place perfectly like a jigsaw.

While somehow Adhaar went on back-foot during the latter half of the UPA-2 regime leading Nandan to take a slew of decisions, including joining politics and losing to Anant Kumar of the BJP from South Bangalore constituency, the present government has been quick to embrace the potential of Adhaar. It even announced a slew of schemes using its foundation with the most ambitious plan of Jan Dhan; Adhaar and Mobile (the JAM trinity) for Direct Beneficiary Transfer of various subsidies that people are eligible for.

The legislative backing for Adhaar has also been finalised which makes it all the more important. Barring the controversy surrounding whether Adhaar is a money bill or not, the legislation seems to have set the platform for easing the lives of the people. Adhaar is no doubt a landmark achievement in a country like India in such a short span of time. One can only be optimistic that the future governments use its potential in the right direction.

The absolute beauty of the book is that it has been written in layman terms, with lots of mind-maps and info-graphics that traverse the reader into a world of augmented reality. The ease with which Nilekani creates a free-flowing stream of ideas and concepts regarding the importance of technology in governance makes this book a lot easier to read besides my reviewing effortless. The book talks about the immense possibilities of the Adhaar, beyond just an identity document.

For anyone interested in technology or governance or public policy this book is a must grab. It is sure to tickle your grey cells and make you come up with a lot of more ideas. Rebooting India also has a Twitter handle for constant updates to micro-bloggers that interested folks can follow.

There’s a lot more about the Aadhar card on Youth Ki Awaaz. Some of it might not agree with Nilekani’s book though. Give it a read if you like:

How Aadhar Cards Make Our Private Information More Exposed Than You Thought

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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