Nandan Nilekani talks Aadhaar, entrepreneurship, and mousetraps

Tech visionary visits MIT Tata Center, shares lessons learned from building India’s unique identity program.

"Thinking scale is a discipline." -Nandan Nilekani at the MIT Tata Center
“Thinking scale is a discipline.” -Nandan Nilekani at the MIT Tata Center

“The mission statement was very simple, but the task was very large.” In a talk at the MIT Tata Center, Nandan Nilekani described how he tackled the monumental problem of issuing a unique identity number (or Aadhaar) to each resident of India.

Nilekani, founder of IT giant Infosys, was tabbed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2009 as chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, where he served until 2014. The government of India had ambitious plans to definitively ID every resident of the country, and the reason was two-fold.

“You have a few hundred million people [in India] who don’t have any proof of existence,” Nilekani said. “So this was a way of including them in society by giving them some kind of ID. Second, the government of India was spending billions of dollars building a welfare state…and that money was not reaching the right hands. The driver for this was both social inclusion, and to make government expenditure more efficient.”

Nilekani spoke in detail about both the strategy and execution of the Aadhaar project, distilling lessons that could be applied to entrepreneurial endeavors of all kinds. One challenge the project faced from the outset was the knowledge that while the current government supported the idea, the next one might not.

“Whatever we did, [we knew that] it should reach such an irresistible scale that it could not be undone. We set the target that 600 million people should have the unique ID in five years, and we met that goal.”

The importance of scale was a constant refrain. Nilekani said that setting goals early in the process was essential to success, as it allowed them to crystallize their thinking about how to reach those goals. “Scale has to be intrinsic to the design of the solution that you have in mind. Scale is not an afterthought. You don’t build a mousetrap and then start thinking about how you can catch every mouse on the planet.”

The entire Unique Identification project was guided by the philosophy of simplicity. Only a few basic attributes are recorded in the system: name, address, age, and sex. Optionally, an email address and mobile phone number can be included. Nilekani calls it a “pure ID system, identity as a platform.” As a number, stored in the cloud, it could be used behind the scenes by agencies and companies across India to establish identity, much as Social Security numbers are in the United States.

But keeping it simple wasn’t easy. “Everyone around you is trying to force you to make it more complicated,” Nilekani said. “We’re not Facebook or something, trying to create all kinds of data about everybody. Any one data item we added to the ID had to be collected one billion times. You had to make it as simple as possible, so that you could scale it up.”

Issuing the numbers was a daunting logistical hurdle, made even trickier by the necessity that each person receive only a single ID. How to prevent people from signing up for multiple ID numbers when you can’t ask for any secondary proof of identity, such as a birth certificate? This problem had the potential to derail the whole project if not handled properly.

For an IT pioneer like Nilekani, the answer unsurprisingly lay in technology. They used biometrics such as fingerprints and eye scans to establish individuality, and developed a robust system for comparing an applicant against what is now the world’s largest biometric database. “We built a system that allowed us to do 1 to 1.5 million Aadhaars a day using biometric de-duplication.”

But scalability, he cautioned, is “not just generating the numbers. It’s getting a million people a day to come and enroll in your system.” The enrollment centers had to be able to handle huge numbers of people, and they had to be able to run independently while being managed by the Aadhaar software.

“We knew no one company could do this, so we have about a hundred enrolling agencies. By creating this ecosystem…we had a scalable architecture. Today we have about 25,000 enrollment stations across the country.”

Each station has a human operator, a PC loaded with software for taking the applicant’s data, and a device for recording biometrics. “There’s nothing to prevent us from having 50,000 [stations],” Nilekani said. Agencies are paid $1 per enrollment, creating a market incentive to promote the Aadhaar program.

Getting people to come in and get their ID turned out to be relatively easy. “The common man realized that this ID was the future of his life in some ways. People came in large numbers.” Today, Nilekani’s vision of one million enrollments per day has come true. “By next year,” he said, “it’ll be a billion people [with unique IDs], and by the year after that it will be ubiquitous.”

With over 600 million Indians registered by the time Nilekani stepped down from the UIDAI, Aadhaar had indeed reached an “irreversible scale.” Perhaps in recognition of this fact, new Prime Minister Narendra Modi has offered the project even greater support than his predecessor. The utility of Aadhaar is not restricted to government programs, either. “We are hoping that in the next four to five years, there will be very exciting private sector or entrepreneur-built apps that will use this capability. It’s designed for the future.”