Nandan Nilekani and Viral Shah
Allen Lane (A Penguin Imprint), 2015
pp.337. Price 799.
There are ten grand challenges, it needs ten start-ups within the government, with a crack team of ten handpicked people per challenge, to solve the most significant problems. There is evidence that this can be done, as evidenced by two “problems” for which solutions are considered “firmly established, large scale (p.291)”. These ideas would transform India and realise a billion aspirations.
Does the above statement sound ambitious, audacious, boastful or a pipe dream? Well, the answer according to Nilekani and Shah is that they are plausible and realistic. They think it is possible to achieve these dreams in a timebound manner if we apply a mission mode and get this going within the government, bypassing several of the checks of balances that a democracy would have – the checks that necessarily slows the process of development. How would we achieve this? Here is the job description:
“A true entrepreneur would figure out all the government processes and follow them to the letter (Note: it does not say spirit). He will navigate the byways of bureaucracy, keep his multiple masters happy, get his project mentioned in every important speech and every government document of relevance, get his bills tabled in Parliament and enacted as law, secure his budgets, cooperate with investigating agencies, respond to court orders, answer Parliament questions, tirelessly provide information sought in RTI requests, build a general consensus with multiple interest groups within the government as well as citizen groups outside, find allies who will support him when under attach, and do all this while staying focused on hiring the best team and building an organization that is dedicated towards achieving a well-defined goal. (p.xxiii)”
The ideas of Nilekani and Shah are largely rooted in the use of technology to solve many of the asymmetries that might be existing in the system. The arguments are that much of these asymmetries are solvable by technology. Decades ago, we had a similar initiative of entrepreneurship within the government when Sam Pitroda revolutionized the telecom network, much before the advent of mobiles and then the same frame work of a “mission” was used to multiple sectors with relatively modest achievements.
There are two problems with the arguments extended by Nilekani and Shah – first they assume that the template they have in terms of the art of the possible – that of Aadhar is a success; second, this template is largely applicable to solve other problems. Infact most of the solutions offered in the book are building on the Aadhar base – which is now termed by Nilekani as India Stack. The authors admit that the person who got the first Aadhar number Ranjana Sonawane did not benefit much from the number because there are multiple government systems that need to work in tandem to achieve her inclusion (p.21). But Aadhar, nevertheless is declared a success story. This is precisely the problem with the approach and tonality of the book. It offers simple solutions, and simplifies the problems. This approach is somewhat surprising because Nilekani himself had to deal with multiple complexities when he was at the helm of the Aadhar project and the potential of Aadhar is yet to be tested at scale. What is successful, are the enrollment numbers in the Aadhar system. This is impressive and stands almost kissing a billion residents, but what is to be tested is the biometric verification at scale on a real time basis. When that system is stabilized we certainly can claim victory, subject to the other hurdles the project faces from the courts and the challenges to privacy.
Irrespective of the reservations on the overall simplicity and the “achievability” of the solutions presented by Nilekani and Shah, the chapters on electronic toll, and other ideas that are at “early stages” of experimentation show promise and look plausible. The long term aspirational ideas need much more than the fixes that are provided through the technological interventions. Education and Healthcare for instance are not just about entitlements, vouchers and choices but also about the multiple systems that need to work in tandem that builds in the back end infrastructure to service these entitlements – irrespective of whether this infrastructure is in the private sector or run by the State.
The broad tone of the book was extended in the recent piece the authors wrote about Freebasics initiative of Facebook to make basic internet services available to all without a charge. In their write up which criticized the concept on the argument of net neutrality they advocated the “direct benefit transfer of internet data packs”.
The book is audacious in its approach; seems to advocate steamrolling “reform” on a mission mode with a readymade solution. The dissent and debate is to be considered as a necessary element to “win over” opposition. That there might be some merit of the dissenting voices is not considered seriously. The dissent is treated as a necessary constraint in a project chart that needs to be addressed in a manner that it does not stall the “progress”. It is this approach that is jarring in a book that is so wonderfully full of ideas.