It was a dark and stormy night, and ….
No wait, that’s not quite right. It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon, actually.
However, it was certainly dark and stormy, Mumbai’s wettest day this monsoon, with 16 measured cm of rain, most of which seemed to be pelting down my collar as I arrived at the Moneylife Foundation’s Shivaji Park offices on 17th August 2010.
I went there to interact with people who wanted to learn more about Aadhaar, India’s multi-billion dollar IT project, that promises to assign unique identity numbers for each resident of India. Keen readers of this blog will have doubtless noted that it was the subject of the previous blogpost too.
Sucheta Dalal, the crusading journalist who edits the magazine Moneylife together with Debashis Basu, has set up the Foundation to assist people who feel lost and abandoned in India’s race to become a superpower, at least from the point of investing and financial matters. It lends assistance to complain and follow up with India’s huge and faceless institutions, covering insurance, banking and more, the faces of which have changed and are continuing to change at a bewildering pace.
It also provides a platform for public interactions and study, in a large and well-equipped book-lined room that seats about 50 people comfortably. That afternoon, I had prepared a presentation expected to last about an hour, posing the questions about financial inclusion asked in my previous blog and more, from 2:30 to 3:30 pm, with a further hour set aside for interaction and discussion, till 4:30 pm. The presentation is about the UID project, naturally, as seen from the viewpoint of an IITian (I am an alumnus of IIT Delhi), given that one of the heavy selling points of the project is UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani’s IIT (Bombay) qualifications.
At about 2:35 pm, with only a handful of people seated, Sucheta suggested I begin, feeling the unexpectedly heavy rain would probably discourage most of the 40 or so people who had confirmed attendance. As it happened, because I was just recovering from a bout of malaria, I was rejigging the speaking arrangement a bit so I could talk while sitting down, instead of standing at the neat podium, installed in a corner by the projection screen. Anyway, in a couple more minutes, I was ready to begin.
To my surprise, the room was now half full, and before I had got past the introductory slide, it was more or less packed. I thanked Ram Krishnaswamy and Samir Kelekar in particular, two of the host of IITians who have helped with research and interaction to distill some of the salient issues surrounding this vast public enterprise, in that opening slide.
We are graduates of three different IITs, separated by space and time, both in college years, age and present location, as are many other of our alumni who interact by email only, spread as we are throughout India and the world. Actually, the three of us have never even met. What we share is our apprehensions about many aspects of this scheme.
Almost from the beginning, the interaction began, led by questions and clarifications from Dr Prakash Hebalkar, also an IITian, who heads Mahindra Lifespace Developers, a huge private sector company, part of the Mahindra & Mahindra engineering group. He was one of the few people in the room I had met before. The rest were mainly from the engineering and civil sector.
I thought it was much more useful to allow interactions to continue together with the presentation, and tried to ensure these remained within the purview of each slide, as I had loads more information to share about various aspects of Aadhaar and its rollout, and these were detailed in succeeding slides.
As a result, an hour later, we were just halfway through the slideshow, and Sucheta suggested a break for refreshments in the next room.Dr Hebalkar was in the middle of a question, so I thought it was best we finish it before breaking.
Not a great idea, because about 20 minutes and several slides later, we noticed once again that we hadn’t actually yet taken a break. I suggested that people use either of the exits from the room to move to the antechamber and get their tea and coffee and come back, as we continued our interaction.
I must say, this too was not a great idea, because it was clear that hardly anyone wanted to miss a word. Anyway, I think about half the people did slip out to get something down their throats before the slideshow came to its end, at around 4:30 pm.
Even then, a large number of people stayed on to carry on discussing issues surrounding the project. There were some great ideas and suggestions for completing adnumbering of people, if it can be handled safely and securely, such as completing the Election Commission’s Voter Identity Project with rectitude and sincerity, or extending the Census to use universal enumeration instead of the present half-baked and random numbering systems. These ideas came from several women present, who work at the grassroots in both slums and rich areas, to empower houseworkers and senior citizens. We finally closed down the interaction at 5:30 pm.
It is clear that the amount of misinformation and simple lack of clarity about the UID project is immense, a tribute to its high-powered and heavily financed publicity campaign, that has resulted in over 400 articles in the mainstream Indian media to date. One of the objectives of the Authority is to disseminate what they ingenuously call the “right” information, and several aspects of the rightness of this information were eye-openers for this audience.
I hope that we and others like us will be able to interact again and again, as soon as possible, with more such audiences in other parts of India. I very much fear that the country is getting inextricably committed to spending an unconscionable amount of money(USD 2bn this fiscal, and USD 12bn by 2015) to undertaking an enterprise that has been likened to The Manhattan Project, the vast wartime exercise to build the atomic bomb.
That, too, involved the rapid development of hard to handle technologies and materials (as this one involves hard to handle technologies, processes and concepts), and it is doubtful the world is the better off for it, other than ongoing improvements in our understanding of basic science (which did not actually need The Bomb to achieve). Over the past few months we have been watching Aadhaar’s targets become a moveable feast, from tangible cards to frangible numbers, and I am not alone in worrying that this bomb might blow up in our faces.