March 27, 2014

India : A failure of management -- Aadhar

The failure of Nandan Nilekani and the UIDAI to introduce the Aadhar card into the the mainstream of India's economic life is one more example of management failure in India. What is most frustrating in the case of Aadhar was that there was a clear need for Aadhar, patterned on the US Social Security Number, and the biometric technology was very much in place to uniquely identify each "warm body" and connect him or her to a unique number. Yet we failed - Why ? Let us study this in a little detail and then try to generalise the same for other similar projects across the country.

I believe that Aadhar failed because of a combination of one or more of the following reasons :
  1. In general Indians are suspicious of and reluctant to adopt new practices. Starting from social mores like homosexuality and inter-caste marriages to business practices like insisting on revenue stamps and stamp paper for legitimizing contracts or looking for three (possibly dummy) tenders for every purchase requirement -- India is very hesitant to break away from the past.
  2. Aadhar would have made a major dent in the ability of corrupt middlemen, both government employees and private contractors, to siphon of public money before it reached the eventual beneficiary. So there was a caucus or cabal that was bent on ensuring its failure.
  3. Aadhar had the biometric technology to connect each human being to a unique number and it would have been successful if it had restricted itself to that role. However a "scope creep" made Aadhar to record the residential address of each person and this is where UIDAI fell into a trap because
    • UIDAI had no way to verify addresses and had to fall back on the traditional, "address proofs" like Bank passbook, Utility Bills or Passport. So the legitimacy, or accuracy, of the Aadhar card was brought down to the same level as so many other cards -- PAN, Voter Card, Drivers Licence -- that are floating around the country
    • Getting equated to cards like PAN and Voter Card opened up turf issues. In particular, the security establishment, led by the Ministry of Home Affairs, got particularly anxious because the equation of the Voter Card with Aadhar card made it particularly vulnerable to abuse by illegal immigrants in communally sensitive election constituencies. 
  4. The final nail in the coffin of Aadhar was the extreme mismanagement of the Aadhar issuance process. Other than the showcase rollout in Delhi and the major metros, the implementation at the district level towns was a total nightmare. Ineffective communication, incomplete planning, ill-trained staff, badly designed software and inadequate computing and communication infrastructure [ and I say this out of personal experience at the Aadhar camp at IIT Kharagpur, where I failed to get my card ] made sure that (a) most people could not get cards and (b) the credibility of the card was compromised beyond repair.
  5. The arrogance displayed by the UIDAI in denying the reality of the previous point 4 and using its proximity to the PMO to arm-twist the population to fall in line by threatening to withhold critical government services like subsidized gas cylinders without which the citizen cannot cook his daily meal !
Point 5 led to the solidification of public resentment against Aadhar to the point that other, more substantial,  objections like (a) the right to privacy that was being blatantly violated and (b) the immorality of data collected with government funds being handed over to a foreign private body -- that few people had a clear idea about, became red-hot issues that the nation started talking about. The resultant tsunami of public opinion against Aadhar was something that roiled around the country and when it reached the doors of the Supreme Court in the form of a PIL, there was little that the judges could do but agree with the petitioners  and remove all the compulsory features of Aadhar and reduced it to the level of another petty loyalty card from retail chain !

So ends the Aadhar story but in this lies the story of many other failures in India where despite having the technology and the money to afford it, we simply cannot implement a solution. Consider ...
  • Roads - the technology to build roads is ancient and yet why is that our roads are full of craters ?
  • Electricity - again the technology to generate and distribute electricity is well known as are ways to detect and prevent theft. Nevertheless there are large parts of the country that are perpetually short of power.
  • Schools - we have thousands of unemployed graduates who would be glad to teach in schools. Building a school is neither expensive nor difficult and yet we cannot provide schools as a matter of right to our kids
  • this list can go on and on and on ...
The problem is neither with technology nor the money to afford it. The real problem lies in our collective inability to manage contradictions and put all the processes together so that we can deliver a solution that is necessary for our citizens. 

Or in short we simply cannot manage the entire process because as a nation we, at all levels starting from the gram panchayat all the way to Rashtrapati Bhavan, lack the basic managerial skills that are necessary for a country to progress and prosper.

So, what is the solution ? Should the Government of India open a 100 more IIMs in the country ? Unfortunately if the IIMs had any clue about how to really manage anything India would have been very different today. The answer is far more complex and will be explored in a subsequent post.