Verifying India's urban poor to a better place

In five years, the India-Stack should have taken off and the poor in India should have a platform to acquire skills, seek jobs and get loans

The Indian government has begun to use the UID database, known as Aadhaar, to make direct cash transfers to the poor, in an attempt to cut out frauds who siphon billions of dollars from welfare schemes
Image: Mansi Thapliyal / Reuters
The Indian government has begun to use the UID database, known as Aadhaar, to make direct cash transfers to the poor, in an attempt to cut out frauds who siphon billions of dollars from welfare schemes

‘Who are you?’ could be a philosophical question for sure, but for hundreds of millions of urban poor in India, the answer can make or break their meagre livelihoods. This makes for an environment in which India as a nation-market is forever on the cusp of a revolution in inclusion (That idea has stuck in my mind from an interview with Govind Rajan, CEO of mobile wallet company Freecharge).

And I say nation-market, inelegant as it sounds, because that is how it is: The governments are attempting to build some of the backbone infrastructure for billions of low-ticket digital transactions, which private businesses will offer useful services on. And because a lot of this will be achieved not as public-funded projects, but by private enterprise, the result could be a better life for a billion people.

I saw one example today. BetterPlace Safety Solutions, a startup in Bengaluru, is perfecting a platform that will add its bit to push that revolution over the edge—Nandan Nilekani, the author of India’s Aadhaar unique ID effort, certainly thinks so: He was present and spoke in support of two new solutions the startup launched on Thursday in the city, to use Aaadhaar as the basis for providing a comprehensive fully-digital verification.

This could potentially help millions of urban poor get the so-called blue-collared jobs—in security providers, as courier and food delivery boys, and in warehouses and factories and shopping malls and on cab-hailing networks.

BetterPlace has initially launched an Aadhaar-based ‘Verifier’ app and an attendance tracker. It sells its solutions to businesses, generating a ‘TRUST score’ for their employees—it accesses information about individual staff after formal consent, but Nilekani points out that people will create their profiles on such platforms out of self interest.

Once they understand the power of such scores and authentication-based systems to give them better access to skills, jobs and credit, they will embrace it, he believes. Indeed, BetterPlace has already partnered urban microfinance provider Janalakshmi Financial Services to identify people who’re registered on its platform who could also gain from small loans from a formal lender (rather than from loan sharks otherwise).

And the money is there for all these efforts. Just the sum total of all the “impact funding” currently in the process of being deployed, at various stages, is about $500 million, by one estimate. BetterPlace is an example of such a beneficiary, having received help from Unitus Seed Fund, a prominent impact investor in India.

In five years, Nilekani believes the India-Stack, an aglomeration of solutions and services on top of the Aadhaar ID, built largely by private companies, will have taken off. Today a labourer from Bihar gets to Bengaluru via brokers and word of mouth. In five years, he may be able to bid for a job from wherever he is, on BetterPlace or some other such platform.

With each job done well, his TRUST score could rise, bumping his value up as a worker. He may be able to add a skill too, say for welding, and a potential recruiter access his certificate in a secure digital locker, eliminating fakes. Getting to that better place, starts with empowering India’s millions with the right answer to the question we started with.

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