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UIDAI: Inside the World's Largest Data Management Project

The scope of India's UID project is breathtaking; but what's even more incredible is that it has got the most unlikely partners to work smoothly together

Published: Nov 29, 2010 06:35:09 AM IST
Updated: Feb 28, 2014 11:50:10 AM IST
UIDAI: Inside the World's Largest Data Management Project
Image: Corbis; Vidyanand Kamat

When Ranjana Sonawane, a 30-year-old housewife from Tembhli, a tribal village in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra was allotted the UID number 7824-7431-7884, the team at the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) would have been quite justified in feeling a little pleased with themselves. A small team — 160 people — had achieved the first milestone of a very ambitious project in a very short time.

The UIDAI is a government body mandated with the task of assigning every single one of India’s 1.2 billion citizens a Unique Identity (UID) number.

If you’re beginning to wonder what the big deal really is, consider this: By 2014, the government wants half of India’s population to be allotted UID numbers. To do that, the Authority will photograph a staggering 600 million Indians, scan 1.2 billion irises, collect six billion fingerprints and record 600 million addresses.

Let’s put this simply. No system in the world has handled anything on this scale. Period.

Think about it.

When the 600 millionth person is assigned a unique 12-digit UID, the system that generates it will have to compare it against 599,999,999 photographs, 1,199,999,998 irises and 12,999,999,990 fingerprints to ensure the number is indeed unique.

By the time the system reaches out to cover every Indian resident, the complexity, well, doubles. When in full flow, the system will be adding a million names to its database every single day until the task is complete.

Now, here’s the question: There’s nobody in the world who’s handled anything like this. Because it is government-owned, there are no private profits or stock options to be had for cracking the problem. In fact, if the current government loses at the next polls, there is a chance the next one may think the idea a waste of time and money and simply disband the project, and the team may lose five years of their lives.

Assuming for a moment all goes well, the only tangible gain most of the team on the project will have is the pleasure of knowing they worked on the most complex data management problem the world has ever known. And perhaps the warm glow that comes with knowing they tried to change the world. After which, they will go back to wherever it is they came from. How many people do you know who’d have the spunk to be in full-time on an assignment like this?

When Raj Mashruwala heard that the PM had parachuted in Nandan Nilekani to head UIDAI, he immediately sent him a congratulatory note and offered to assist. Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys, was Mashruwala’s junior at IIT Bombay. Mashruwala, 58, now an investor and mentor to a few companies in Silicon Valley, had first moved to the US in 1976 to pursue a Masters in engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He stayed on, founded a few companies in the manufacturing software space and did well for himself. Nilekani wrote back right away and asked Mashruwala to join him and an assorted bunch of people from various parts of the world to discuss a broad framework for the project.

The two had a common friend: Srikanth Nadhamuni, an engineer from the University of Mysore who, like Mashruwala, had pursued a Masters in the US and had put in 15 years in Silicon Valley. In 2003, Nilekani and Nadhamuni co-founded eGovernments Foundation, a non-profit organisation to help municipalities deliver better services to citizens using IT. When Nilekani left Infosys to head the UID project, he invited Nadhamuni to head the technology centre.

At Nilekani’s invitation, Mashruwala flew down to Bangalore in July last year, to attend a conference organised by the UIDAI. In the room, there were bankers, professors from Ivy League colleges, technology professionals, people from NGOs, even representatives from the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC). And of course Nilekani’s many friends and acquaintances, such as Nachiket Mor, co-President, ICICI Foundation.

The diversity floored Mashruwala.

Ram Sevak Sharma, the designated CEO — or the Director General as he is called at the UIDAI — graduated with a masters in mathematics from IIT Kanpur in 1976. He went on to join the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) in 1978. Sharma was perhaps the first officer in Bihar to introduce a DCM 10-D computer (in Begu Sarai where he was the district magistrate). He computerised, in succession, the treasury department in Purnia district, Bihar’s public grievance system and the National Rural Employment Program. His passion for technology pushed him to take a sabbatical from the IAS in 2000 and pursue a degree in computer science at the University of California, Riverside.

UIDAI: Inside the World's Largest Data Management Project
Image: Amit Verma
NANDAN NILEKANI, ex co-chairman, Infosys, was the first to heed the government's call

Then there was K. Ganga, from Indian Audit and Accounts Services, who among other assignments had served as financial advisor to the President of India. When Nilekani, who was introduced to her through a mutual friend, asked her if she could give five years of her life to the project as deputy director general (DDG) in charge of finance, Ganga agreed, but with one caveat. She didn’t want her role to be limited to handling finances. She wanted to be part of the team that created the project ground up. She got her way.

Michael Foley, the celebrated Bangalore-based designer who created the baton for the Commonwealth Games 2010, was in too. As design head of Titan, he had created watches (among them, the Titan Edge, the world’s slimmest watch), sunglasses and other lifestyle products. He subsequently founded FoleyDesigns where, among other things, he works on lighting systems and waste disposal. Foley went on to design a portable kit for the UID project that houses a laptop, camera and iris- and fingerprint-scanners.

Sanjay Swamy, CEO of mCheck, had written an email to Nilekani on how the project ought to evolve; then he realised he didn’t know what the email ID was. So he posted it on a blog instead, which caught Nilekani’s eye. When they finally touched base, Nilekani told him, “Before you get on to your next venture, spend some time to help us with the micropayments module.”

Over the next 12 months, the diversity only grew.

A young lawyer working in Brussels and a Harvard graduate volunteered for the communications team; an executive with just about a year under his belt at McKinsey signed up to work on processes and operations; a chartered accountant with 21 years at Infosys UK behind him came in on the project management unit; an IIM Ahmedabad graduate who’d put in 11 years at GE and Genpact wanted in on the Human Resources team.

It wasn’t just folks from the private sector, though. Nilekani and Sharma cast their net wide within sarkari circle and got in people from the government’s various departments: The railways, postal services, income tax, audit & accounts, even BSNL.

Two problems existed though. First, they could only look at people eligible for central government postings. Second, bureaucrats aren’t interviewed for assignments. Ashok Pal Singh, DDG - Logistics in the UIDAI, explains that this is because in government, the basic premise is that one person is as good as another. But Nilekani and Sharma not only conducted extensive interviews, they made background checks and even collected references before appointing people.

“In terms of perks, privileges and pay, this place has nothing more to offer than any other job in government. In many respects, it is worse off,” says Singh, an alumnus of St Stephen’s, Delhi and Mayo, Ajmer. “And yet everyone is here because they want to be.” He was Deputy Director General in the Department of Posts, where he had nurtured the dream of getting every Indian a bank account and an email ID. When the project was announced, he sought a meeting with Nilekani and Sharma to discuss how the UID project could fulfil those two objectives. They ended up hiring him for the project, to drive financial inclusion.

The signals weren’t lost on Mashruwala. He originally thought he’d go back to California and coordinate volunteers from there. At best, he reckoned, he’d be needed for three months. But 10 days after he left, Mashruwalla was back to Bangalore with no house or plan. He ended up renting an apartment in the city, not far from the houses of Nadhamuni and Pramod Varma (an old Infosys hand who was on the project as its chief software architect). That house also doubled up as UID’s tech centre in the early days. They now operate out of their official premises on Sarjapur Ring Road
in Bangalore.

Govindraj Ethiraj is your dyed-in-the-wool veteran journalist who’s done time with big name brands like the Economic Times, CNBC-TV18 and Bloomberg-UTV (where he was editor) before he took over as Head, Industry Outreach at UIDAI. Over an informal chat with a colleague of ours in Mumbai two weeks ago, Ethiraj told of a unique culture evolving within the UIDAI.

UIDAI: Inside the World's Largest Data Management Project
Image: Amit Verma
RAM SEVAK SHARMA, Director General of the UIDAI, personally reviews code. Even at 4 a.m.

On the one hand, there are those who live in the black-and-white world of the government, with comforting, unchanging hierarchies and systems, away from the chaos of the private sector. On the other, you have white-collar executives with their own notions of who is blue-blooded, plus a deep distrust of red tape. Put that together and you have an environment ripe for mistrust and conflict.

Nilekani, says Ethiraj, has worked hard at convincing colleagues from both sides to let go of notions they’ve nurtured and, instead, learn to collaborate.

He put down a simple guideline: No silos. How they would operate now, Nilekani told the team, is their problem, not his. So far, they seem to have done just fine. Consider, for instance, the kind of team that has come into place to drive financial inclusion, which is arguably one of the most important objectives of the project.

Barely 20 percent of Indians have bank accounts. Problem is, to open a bank account you need proof of identity, something millions of Indians just don’t have. But if banks start to accept the UID numbers — which capture most of the information required — it becomes easier, and cheaper, to open an account.

Ashok Pal Singh drives that initiative at the UIDAI, with a team drawn from both the public and private sector. Rajesh Bansal brings in the regulator’s perspective (he came in from the Reserve Bank of India). Viral Shah, a PhD in Computer Science from Santa Barbara, is an expert in Financial Economics. Pavan Sachdeva, an investment banker with 19 years of experience, volunteered for few months before returning to Singapore; Charu Anchlia, interned with UIDAI for two months, and is now doing her Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard. Swamy of mChek came in as an expert in mobile payments. “This imparts speed and quality to the project. Because you are not grappling in the dark, you hit the right solution quickly,” says Singh.

UIDAI’s headquarters is in Jeevan Bharati, a building, in Connaught Place, Delhi; that’s where all the policy decisions are taken. The technology backbone of the project is in Bangalore. The contrast between the two is dramatic.

The Delhi office is a traditional government setup. Officers sit in large rooms separated by plywood partitions. Nameplates on the doors display their designations. Peons and assistants move files between different officers and usher in visitors. Hand-towels protect chair upholstery. Conversations are largely in Hindi and work gets conducted in a polite, orderly way. People are addressed and referred to by their titles: “Chairman, I need your approval” or “DDG said…” for instance.

At the tech centre at Bangalore, the doors and partitions are gleaming glass. People rush around energetically. Even at 8 p.m. lights blaze, visitors stream in, and impromptu meetings take place in the corridors. English is the default language, everybody is on a first-name terms and the ambience is collegial.

It is this irreverence that first bothered, then fascinated and now amuses the bureaucrats in Delhi. “Our bosses will never praise us in public,” says K. Ganga, “But our colleagues in the private sector openly praise each other and give credit. I think we ought to adopt that culture.”

Other things still bother the bureaucrats.

Hierarchy, seniority; these are the very fabric of government life. Private sector people don’t seem to respect that. How, for instance, can a junior recruit directly address Nilekani or Sharma when they don’t report directly to them?

Anil Khachi who joined as a DDG earlier in April this year, says he is surprised how casually Nilekani, a cabinet minister, comes into his room for a chat or stops him in the corridor to get an update. It isn’t something that happens routinely in government circles. “I insist they don’t behave like me,” says Singh. “People in the government call me Sir, but people from the private sector call me Ashok, and I am okay with that. Twenty years I worked with people of the same kind. I am enjoying this diversity.”

Then there is the cult of email. Government decisions are conveyed by files, which always move in a certain order: Bottom to top and then the same way back. As K. Ganga says, “We only talk through files and files don’t have names and faces. I am just a designation.” People from the private sector perceive this as a rabid fixation with maintaining a paper trail about everything.

In the early days at Bangalore for instance, meetings usually happened either at Mashruwalla’s apartment, or if it was a bigger, more formal meeting, Varma would tap his friends at various companies to lend him a conference room. Delhi, however, would insist on getting an estimate of the number of cups of coffee served at these meetings, the cost of lunch and the mode of transportation participants would need. From a bureaucrat’s point of view, a record of all expenses is important because it is taxpayer money being spent, and they are accountable for every paisa. As cabinet minister in charge of this project, Nilekani can be asked questions in parliament if any norm is violated. “We are covered by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the Right to Information (RTI) Act,” says K. Ganga, explaining why every decision made at the UIDAI has to be documented. “If an Infosys engineer wrote a program for Burger King, he isn’t answerable to the public. I, on the other hand, have to answer parliamentary questions. And I keep reminding everybody of this.”

UIDAI: Inside the World's Largest Data Management Project
Image: Amit Verma
K. GANGA is DDG in charge of finance, but also a part of the core team that created the project

To keep track of the pulls and pressures this hybrid culture places on the system, Sharma meets his six deputies informally every Tuesday. After working together for a year, both sides have come to respect each other.

The bureaucrats admire the private sector for their speed and polish; the corporate volunteers are awed by the number of people a government office reaches and the impact an official can create. And they have quickly figured out they are dealing with some remarkably smart people. Samant Veer Kakkar, a young volunteer on the communications team, who gave up his legal career to work on the project, says every stereotype that he had of a bureaucrat has been busted ever since he started work at the UIDAI. The engineers from MindTree, the Bangalore-based IT firm which created the enrollment application for UIDAI, are constantly amazed that even at 4 a.m., Director General Sharma personally reviews their software code.

Since the time the project was announced 16 months ago, the UIDAI has received 1,000 applications from people across the world. From these, 23 have come in as unpaid volunteers, 14 have taken sabbaticals from their jobs, and 23 took massive pay cuts to join the Project Management Unit (PMU) for the UIDAI set up by the National Institute of Smart Government. The tenure of volunteers ranges from a few months to a year; those in the PMU stay longer. (The added advantage of working with volunteers and people on sabbaticals was that because there were no salaries to be paid, the project got off to a start even before the budgets had been sanctioned.) Another 140 have been drawn from the government.

The core is managed by civil servants, heading all departments and taking all the policy decisions. They are aided by experts from the private sector, lending their services to the project in various ways.

In hindsight, the only way that the project stood a chance of working was this new organisational model, which the government hadn’t attempted until then. While the government has used volunteers in, for example, the Planning Commission, they are limited to a handful; not the kind of numbers that are in UIDAI.

The team includes some of the fine minds in the world, from academic institutions, the private sector, and hand-picked candidates from the government who’ve done remarkably well for themselves, entrepreneurs who can build business applications around the UID number so that it evolves into a viable, self sustaining model. They deal with complex technical problems, biometrics, models of financial inclusion, privacy laws and communication. At various times, different roles took priority. In the run up to the project, it was the technologists. Once enrollment picks up steam, it will need people to work with regulators and businesses to find ways in which the UID number can be used.

Whether it’s Nilekani’s persuasive skills or Sharma’s insider knowledge and experience of government systems or Manmohan Singh’s seeing merit in the argument and clearing the way for it, the truth is that the UIDAI has come a significant distance with the project. When the first UID number was allotted, the 160-strong team was just 40 percent of the 384 people the UIDAI is allowed to hire. Definitely worth a round of applause, even from hardened critics.

Image: Gireesh G V for Forbes India

Srikanth Nadhamuni
spent 15 years in silicon valley; he heads UIDAI's tech centre

But it would be premature, even naïve, to hail the project as a total success already.

The complexities that it must still deal with are remarkable, not just in terms of scale or the massive challenge of assembling a capable team and keeping it together but in the sheer audacity of its objectives.

At just the government level, the project is expected to check corruption and stem leakages from government remittances, while simultaneously meeting developmental goals like financial inclusion. Beyond that, UID numbers could be used, for instance, by telecom and insurance companies to offer their products to people. Then there are issues from concerned bodies around privacy and security of data to contend with, valid concerns in this day and age.

Whatever the final outcome, the UIDAI has convincingly demonstrated there is an outstanding case for public-private partnership models. And that if the intent is clear, people will come, no matter what the constraints.

People from Private Sector on the UID project

Sanjay Swamy
Volunteer - Financial Inclusion & Mobile Strategy
Duration - 1 year
Bio - Former CEO of mChek, a mobile payments startup; got a call from Nilekani asking him to help with financial inclusion; uses his entrepreneurial skills to convince banks, insurance companies and telcos to use UID numbers for verification and reducing customer acquisition costs.


Sahil Kini

On sabbatical - Process and Operations
Tenure - I year
Bio - Graduate from IIT Madras; on loan from Mc Kinsey and Company, where he worked for two years; drawn to UIDAI because it is the world’s most ambitious project. Among other responsibilities, is helping UIDAI set up its contact center.

Raju Rajagopal
Volunteer - Civil Society Outreach
Tenure - 1 year
Bio - Worked 40 years in the US; returned to India to work in the development sector; Nadhamuni introduced him to Nilekani. He is helping UIDAI to form partnerships with NGOs around the country to make sure that the weakest sections of the society - migrant workers, nomads and children - are enrolled by the project.

D. Subhalakshmi
On sabbatical
- HR and Operations
Tenure - 1 year
Bio - Graduate of IIM A; 11 years into her career, working at Genpact, her boss, Pramod Bhasin, recommended her to Nilekani. She drives the volunteer and sabbatical programme at UIDAI. So happy with her work that she wants to stay on an extra year.

Jagadish Babu
On sabbatical
- Technology Hardware platform
Tenure - 1 year
Bio - IISc alumni; worked with Intel for over 12 years, with partners such as software developers, prospective customers; first met Nadhamuni in the course of his work. When UIDAI’s sabbatical programme kicked off, Nadhamuni brought him over to UIDAI to manage the devices ecosystem.

Samant Veer Kakkar
- Communications
Duration - 2 years
Bio - An LLB and LLM; while living abroad he had become acutely aware of India’s poverty and inequality; read an article about UIDAI. Quit his job at Lefebvre Hanneman Consultancy, Brussels, and his legal career to volunteer at UIDAI so that he could help others.

Ajit V Rao
- Biometrics
Tenure - 1 year
Bio - Has a doctorate from University of California, Santa Barbara and 12 years with Texas Instruments behind him. Attracted by UIDAI’s scope and transparency, he volunteered for the biometrics team

(This story appears in the 03 December, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)