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How Nandan Nilekani built India's digital public infrastructure

In a free-flowing conversation with Uber's global CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, the Infosys chairman talked about his journey of building Aadhaar

Naini Thaker
Published: Feb 23, 2024 03:52:34 PM IST
Updated: Feb 23, 2024 04:08:00 PM IST

How Nandan Nilekani built India's digital public infrastructureInfosys Chairman, Nandan Nilekani. Image: Hemant Mishra for Forbes India

At an event in Bengaluru on Thursday, Uber’s global CEO Dara Khosrowshahi spoke to Infosys Chairman Nandan Nilekani on ‘Building Population Scale Technology’. The candid conversation between the two revolved around how India’s ‘tech visionary’ has played a key role in building India’s digital public infrastructure (DPI). Edited excerpts from the conversation:

On building India’s digital infrastructure

It began 15 years back when I was invited by the government to give every Indian a unique ID. It was a very pathbreaking idea way back in 2009. So I said, let’s do it. I quit my job in Infosys, joined the government, became employee number one of this startup. So the government had this idea of doing an ID, our value add was let's make it a digital ID.

If there is something more difficult than a startup, it's a startup inside the government. I had to put the team together and I said we’re going to give 600 million IDs before I stepped down. It was a crazy commitment but I needed to give the team a unifying goal. So that’s how I got into the Aadhaar world. Today 1.3 billion have an ID and it is used and it is used 80 million times a day for authentication, KYC and so on.

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We asked ourselves, what are the use cases of this ID which make it compelling? We came up with authentication, verify who the person is. That's a very useful thing in many applications, and we gave it as an API, because we realised that innovation has to happen outside. We had to have built the rails on which innovation happens, just like the Internet or GPS happened.

Another use case was KYC or know your customer. To open a bank account or to get a mobile connection, you need both these things. And we came up with a way to collapse the time of KYC from days to minutes. Over the last 10 years, we’ve been adding layers on that with UPI, FastTag among others. It's all coming together and we feel we're only halfway on the journey.

On private companies using this opportunity

The digital public infrastructure (DPI) has been built for enabling innovation for everyone. But it depends on company to company. For instance, if we look at Google's very successful product: Google Pay. It is one of the top two products for UPI. They embraced it and built this, and they have been talking about it in other parts of the world.

Specifically for Uber, I think there are three or four things. One is, of course, payments. You know, I think I remember the early days, cash on delivery and people fumbling around for cash. Now it's all UPI based.

Also read: Nandan Nilekani: Paying it forward, at scale

Similarly, the driver verification, I think the fact that you have Aadhaar KYC, Digilocker, which is another great product—where all verified documents can be stored such as driver's licence, vehicle registration, Aadhaar among others. This dramatically reduces the cost of verification of credentials, both of the driver and the vehicle. When it comes to intercity service, all our highways have FastTag, so there is no waiting time at toll gates.

So I feel that everything that we have built so far is actually valuable for different players for different benefits. Also, the ecosystem of companies that have created value around DPI runs into $100 billion.

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