Nandan Nilekani talks to us about Digital India

by Anshul Bhat (12 Aice)


On the 12th of July, 2017, the Aditi Institute hosted Infosys co-founder, Nandan Nilekani, who delivered a talk that focused on the hopes and prospects of a “Digital India”. With approximately a quarter of our population owning a smartphone and more than three quarters connected to the internet, it is hardly surprising that our government remains committed to improving online infrastructure and promoting the electronic provision of government services, as Mr Nilekani explains. Indeed, demonetisation and other recent government initiatives exemplify that perfectly: a prerequisite for a ‘cashless economy’ is internet access.


The talk began with a startling reflection. It had been exactly 10 years since the release of the revolutionary iPhone, a stark reminder of our monumental technological progress. This served as Mr Nilekani’s introduction to what would become a major element of his lecture – disruptive technology. As major breakthroughs see an exponential increase in frequency, entire industries stare down the barrel of obsolescence. Self-driving cars are a simple illustration of this, he states, before wryly remarking at the feasibility of implementing such a network in India, or rather the lack thereof.


The very face of business is experiencing something of a paradigm shift. As Aadhaar architect, Mr Nilekani succinctly puts it, “consumer data is the new oil”. Some of the largest corporations on the planet base their revenue model on advertising, essentially selling user information for billions of dollars. According to Mr Nilekani, India is at the centre of what he calls a ‘digital explosion’, a period of colossal change that is bound to offer up countless new opportunities to harness this information for good. Consumer data could be analysed to determine just how creditworthy a customer is before providing them with a loan, instead of having the loanee go down the unnecessary and inherently riskier route of securing an asset, perhaps property, as collateral. Though these ideas no longer lie in the realm of fantasy, for them to truly gain traction, democratising data is imperative.


Mr Nilekani, former chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UDAI), is a true pioneer and champion of foundational IDs, like Aadhaar, which he understandably asserts is the way forward. Authentication based on an individual’s unique number, he elucidates, supported by biometric verification, appears to be the closest we can get to an infallible system.

An incredibly vibrant question and answer session concluded his talk. Queries voiced ranged from innocently inquisitive: “What are other applications of Aadhaar in a business context?”; to borderline interrogative: “With the inevitable expansion of automated processes that you predict, how do we address the growing threat of technological unemployment?”

A ceaseless barrage of enquiries displaying a commendable degree of percipience was dealt with by Mr Nilekani in an equally shrewd manner. By the end of it, most doubt with regards to the direction of Indian business in the last couple of years, had been erased, which only begged the question – what is in store for an India more connected than ever?