Nilekani’s departure will be a big blow to the project
Apart from needing visionaries to conceive and then execute them, game-changer projects need careful and powerful steering since, by their very nature, they go against the status quo. In the case of the Aadhaar project, Nandan Nilekani played both roles. Not only did he conceive the technical wizardry of the project—3rd party collection of biometrics to keep costs down with central processing of the data to ensure de-duplication of Aadhaar numbers—he steered it through rough waters. On the one hand, there were civil society objections on privacy issues; there was the turf war with the Census of India that wanted sole rights to collecting biometrics. And, above all, there was the powerful political lobby that benefited from massive leakages in the R3 lakh crore that India spends annually on welfare programmes.
Nilekani dealt with privacy objections by pointing to lots of biometrics data lying around even before Aadhaar came on the scene—at the driving licence authorities, at the property department office, even the US embassy visa section. Besides, the Aadhaar database was constructed in such a way it had no record other than a set of biometrics attached to a name—user of such biometrics, like a ration shop or a mobile bank, would query the Aadhaar computer on whether the biometrics matched the given name, but the details of the actual transaction would never travel to the Aadhaar database, they would remain where they always did, with the ration shop, with the bank. The home ministry’s objections were taken on board, but Aadhaar was allowed to go ahead with collecting its data. And since Aadhaar was never mandatory, Nilekani worked on creating a ‘pull factor’—this was RBI allowing banks to accept Aadhaar as proof of identity, the government allowing mobile phone firms to do the same; over a period of time, software solutions came up based on Aadhaar, for money transfer for instance. The government using Aadhaar-based direct benefit transfers for giving R3,370 crore to 2.1 crore LPG consumers in 292 districts was proof of concept, and the fact that 585 million people have unique Aadhaar numbers was proof the 3rd party vendor model of scaling up was working.
Based on this success, it is tempting to think Aadhaar can carry on without Nilekani at the helm any more—he has announced his quitting since he is now fighting the Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket. The fact that, even after its very successful use for LPG in 292 districts, the Cabinet decided to put it on hold suggests the project still needs a championing of the type Nilekani provided—the project was sold to Sonia Gandhi as the ultimate welfare programme, one that could help the Congress government put money directly in the hands of the beneficiaries; it was sold to Manmohan Singh as one that would help cut subsidy expenditures. And both were true. Other game-changer projects, such as dematerialisation of shares, have survived even after those that conceived them moved on. But the others didn’t threaten the political gravy train in the manner Aadhaar does.