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Nandan Nilekani is often known as the man who gave India ‘Aadhar’, the world’s largest biometric ID system. A graduate from IIT Bombay, Nilekani has established himself as one of the most prominent figures in the Indian tech ecosystem.
Over the years, Nandan Nilekani has overseen multiple tech projects for the Indian government. Besides serving as the chairman of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), Nilekani also helped develop the technology to roll out Good and Services Tax (GST) and the revolutionary Unified Payments Interface (UPI) technology.
Currently, the billionaire technologist is on a mission to save retailers in India from the challenge of e-commerce giants companies such as Amazon and Flipkart. With Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC), Nilekani is creating an open network for small merchants in the country to sell their products directly to traders and consumers.
On a similar line, Beckn, a foundation backed by Nilekani, has also launched the ‘Namma Yatri’ app in partnership with the Auto Rickshaw Drivers Union (ARDU) in Bengaluru, designed to eliminate aggregators such as Ola and Uber.
In this context, we can’t help but wonder whether Nandan Nilekani is the ‘go to’ man for the Indian government in terms of technology?
At the forefront of innovation
Nandan Nilekani was at the forefront of the Indian IT revolution. He co-founded Infosys along with N.R. Narayana Murthy in 1981 and played a significant role in taking Infosys to the global market. Besides, some of Infosys’ glory years were under Nilekani when he served as chief executive officer of Infosys from 2002 to 2007.
In 1988, the technocrat also co-founded the non-governmental trade association and advocacy group National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), which was formed to promote the development and growth of the Indian IT sector and to represent the interests of its member companies. Today, NASSCOM is the apex body for the tech industry in India.
For decades, Nandan Nilekani has been a pioneer in innovation, which culminated in an invitation from former Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh to chair the UIDAI—which Nilekani gracefully accepted.
Successfully spearheaded Aadhar implementation
Implementing Aadhar was an arduous task, which Nilekani triumphed. The mega project has helped improve financial inclusion, improved identity verification, and assisted millions of Indians in accessing government services in India.
Aadhar is a 12-digit unique identification number issued to Indian residents and is linked to an individual’s biometric and demographic data, including their name, age, address, gender, iris scan, and fingerprints.
Under Nilekani’s visionary approach, Aadhaar became the world’s largest biometric ID system, with over 1.359 billion holders as of January 2023.
What Nilekani did was commendable because he had to overcome multiple challenges in terms of scaling Aadhar. The project was attacked at multiple fronts—by the opposition parties, both BJP and Congress for contrasting reasons, whereas, civil society saw Aadhar as a breach of privacy.
Nilekani overcame all political and bureaucratic pressure and helped Aadhar become what it is today. Undertaking the project helped Nilekani navigate the dynamics of the bureaucratic world.
“UIDAI has toughened me a lot. I’ve now learnt how to deal with a lot of serious opposition, including sneak attacks from the activists, media and some agencies. My job at Infosys was much more genteel, but these are no-holds-barred environments,” Nilekani told Forbes India.
Due to the immense scale of the project, Nilekani was even commended by renowned figures such as Bill Gates and Satya Nadella at a global level.
Aadhar opened the doors to other projects
With Aadhar, Nilekani showcased his leadership and technical abilities in creating a time-sensitive large-scale system. Not only Gates and Nadella, but the Indian government as well took note of his commendable achievement.
Impressed by the success of the technology-intensive project, the Narendra Modi-led administration roped in Nilekani to contribute to their Digital India initiatives.
Nilekani also headed the special purpose vehicle, called the GSTN (Goods and Services Tax Network), responsible for implementing the IT infrastructure needed to roll out GST in the country.
The GST system was introduced with the aim of simplifying the tax structure and bringing uniformity in the taxation of goods and services across the country.
Soon, the government of India entrusted Nilekani to develop the IT infrastructure for the mega National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS)—also known as Ayushman Bharat Yojana.
The former Infosys CEO was also an adviser to the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), an umbrella organisation for all retail payment systems in India.
Through his close collaboration with NPCI, Nilekani played a pivotal role in introducing UPI to India. This revolutionary technology transformed the way payments are made in the country and has since become a popular payment method.
Track record of success
Nilekani’s exceptional strategic acumen has been widely recognised and which also landed him the UIDAI job. However, it is his track record of success in delivering when it comes to technology-driven government projects that has made him the ‘go to’ authority for the Indian government.
Besides, above all, his unmatched experience in handling mega projects such as Aadhar and NHPS makes him a national asset. Currently, it’s quite difficult to envision anyone in the technology industry who possesses as robust a background and as extensive an experience in managing projects of such magnitude as Nilekani.
Nilekani’s experience and knowledge in the area of information technology and software development, combined with his dedication to public service, have made him a trusted advisor to the government of India.
With India envisioning to become a USD 5 trillion economy, technology is set to play a significant role if we are to achieve the target. With Nilekani engaged with ONDC at the present, it is highly likely that the government will continue to rely on his expertise for future technology projects.