Nandan Nilekani needs no more awards to feel his lifetime’s work has been appreciated — he’s won a bunch of them and must treasure, above all, the Joseph Schumpeter Prize that was awarded to him in 2005 for innovative services in economy, economic sciences in politics. That recognition was particularly prescient as just a few years thereafter, in 2009, Nilekani joined the government as chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India to spearhead an initiative that someone rightly described as “biggest social project on the planet”.
The idea was to provide every Indian citizen with a social security number and proof of identity that would forever change the way they accessed cash or services. The Aadhaar project allows the government to pursue social welfare scheme more efficiently and save the exchequer thousands of crores that would otherwise have found their way into the wrong hands. That it has turned out to be a stunning success — netting some 910 million people — and has all top regulators in the country — the RBI, Sebi, Irda and Trai — batting for it, despite the Supreme Court’s refusal to make it mandatory, is testimony to Nilekani’s brilliant thinking and ability to execute. The programme has had its share of detractors but as this paper has pointed out, the invasion of privacy argument doesn’t hold because although Aadhaar is a database of biometrics, it cannot be used to construct a profile of an individual. For his outstanding contribution to the IT industry and for creating Aadhaar, Nilekani takes home the Express IT Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, 2015.
For anyone to make a big success of even one career is creditable — helping build and lead a company like Infosys is in itself an admirable achievement. But Nilekani has done it twice over with Aadhaar and with a bit of luck could pull it off a third time.
The small-town boy from Dharwad may not yet have all the levers he needs — a position in government or a mandate from the people — to launch another scheme like Aadhaar. But that is unlikely to stop him from trying to transform lives and livelihoods. At 60, Nilekani has the energy, experience and enterprise to take on a project and make it succeed.
As he says, his wealth lies not in his bank balance but in his experience as co-founder of Infosys and Aadhaar chairman where he delivered more than he had promised. And he’s generous with both — between mentoring start-ups, helping out with EkStep and advising the National Payments Corporation of India where they’re working on a payments platform for interoperable mobile payments, Nilekani’s more than busy. As he says, he can contribute best by leveraging his knowledge of technology, business and social activity. EkStep is particularly close to his heart.
“I think the change that I would like to see, I would do it through ‘EkStep’,” he said in a recent interview. Going by his track record, Nilekani’s ideas could once again bring about a change of unimaginable magnitude, this time bettering the lives of hundreds of children across the country.