Rebooting India: Realizing a Billion Aspirations
Nandan Nilekani & Viral Shah
A LOT has been said about how technology can change the way we conduct our lives. The fact that we can do so many things online today is testimony to this advancement. This is the crux of Rebooting India: Realizing a Billion Aspirations. However, the title is a misnomer, as the book tells us more about how technology has already rebooted the country in certain respects rather than what could happen in the future—especially in terms of government and governance—which was posited at the beginning.
Nandan Nilekani and Viral Shah, both renowned names, hence disappoint by not giving too many ideas for the future, and by instead carrying out a descriptive discourse on the past. However, if we consider this book as one that tells us where all we have rebooted at the rudimentary level in the country, it is fairly comprehensive.
The authors do tend to go overboard with Aadhaar, which, though a success in terms of coverage, has its limitations. True, a verified unique identification (UID) number can be used for several purposes that involve sifting through data on citizens for various purposes. However, constant self-eulogies could put off the reader. The authors do admit that UID is not mandatory, but say it’s useful not just from the point of view of giving one an identity, but also in channelling welfare programmes such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Act (MGNREGA) and subsidies. All this is possible because a bank account can be opened on the strength of the Aadhaar card, after which transfers can be made. Models for new kinds of banks, too, will depend more on technology and less on human interface.
So technology certainly has made things more transparent when it comes to government services. It will also be a critical part of the effectiveness of GST, which has been put forward as the next big thing for the country. Once accepted, its implementation will depend on how technology is able to steer the loose ends so as to bring about an optimal solution.
The authors also talk of events like elections, which have now been technology-enabled, both in terms of voting and counting, cutting down on time and costs, besides bringing in transparency. The authors argue that elections should incorporate UID as well, so that people can vote for candidates of their constituency from anywhere in the country.
In fact, this might be just a couple of years away—the next elections could probably accommodate this requirement, which is growing significantly, given the migratory nature of labour in rural areas. Social media—using which candidates have been able to get closer to the electorate—being used for elections is another example of the success story of technology. In the 2014 general elections, this was an effective way for candidates to get into households and influence voting patterns. While one cannot judge the success of a candidate who chooses this medium over physical tours, it is a fact that social media has definitely enhanced his/her reach.
The authors also explain how technology can enhance efficiency seamlessly and ensure that things move faster. The electronic toll collection option at toll roads is another example of how technology has made life easier. The authors extend the argument to the legal and medical fields as well, which open up a plethora of opportunities for not just providers of these services, but also tech companies. Education is another area that has been touched upon, which, the authors say, can be transformed through technology. However, we still have a long way to go here, given our predilection for specific colleges and institutions.
Clearly, technology is the way forward, as it is a great enabler, as well as an equaliser in terms of being non-exclusive. The fact that the government has latched on to this theme is interesting and it is here that the authors could have elaborated on how the mindset should change. In fact, the progressive use of technology, which is labour-displacing, is a major issue for countries that are labour-surplus and face the challenge of providing employment. Every time a new technology displacement happens, a segment of employment is affected. A discussion on this, along with a perspective on how the new skillsets are matched with technology, would have made the book infinitely more interesting. But Rebooting India is readable, as it explains how technology processes work for implementing various schemes.
At times, the authors quote numbers that should have been cross-checked, like central subsidies accounting for 4% of the GDP. Or, for that matter, several conjectures on savings from various technology-based actions, which would have been more convincing had the basis for arriving at these numbers been explained. However, coming from persons with a non-economic background, this can be ignored.
The authors do state at the beginning of the book that if we identify 10 major issues, we can put 100 competent persons to have the jobs executed. This may be trivialisation—just like the single-window clearance that we talk about—given the complexity of the system in which we operate, which involves not just the central government, but states and local governments as well. However, they do speak of 12 such issues, of which some have been implemented like UID and others that are yet to be implemented. But, these solutions may not be transformational, as technology is more an enabler than a driver of the economy. We cannot simplify solutions to serious problems like
unemployment and poverty to single factors.
Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings