The Aadhaar Story: Digitising Billion+ Identities with Dr. Ram Sewak Sharma Former Chairman, TRAI

Dr. Ram Sewak Sharma Former Chairman, TRAI chats with Sanjay Swamy Managing Partner, Prime Venture Partners .

Listen to the podcast to learn about:

2:30 - Dr. Sharma’s passion for technology and learning

7:20 - Why Aadhaar

12:22 - Working on one of most ambitious government project

24:58 - Leading world’s largest vaccination drive

32:00 - Dr. Sharma’s advice to the youngsters

Read the complete transcript below

Sanjay Swamy 01:05

Hello everybody. Welcome again to a new edition of the Prime Ventures Partners podcast. I have with me today, a very special guest, someone who I had the privilege of working with briefly during the early days of the Aadhaar programme. A gentleman who has really played a pioneering role in several things around Digital India and today is the chairman of the empowered group of the vaccine administration for COVID-19. Please join me in welcoming Shri Ram Sewak Sharma. Sir, welcome to the programme.

Dr. Ram Sewak Sharma 01:33

Thank you very much, Sanjay. It has been a pleasure working with you in UIDAI also and now connecting again after a long time.

Sanjay Swamy 02:50

Thank you, sir. We have all been reading and tracking a lot of the amazing contributions you’ve been leading for the country, starting with Aadhaar and beyond throught your role as chairman of TRAI and several other initiatives and now heading one of the most critical and large scale activities.

But I’d like to start a little with your early days and your background, which not many people may know about. It always fascinated me to see you walk into the UIDAI technical centre with a pendrive saying, “I woke up at 4am writing code here and Pramod Varma please go ahead and look at some of these changes that I’m suggesting”.

It would be great for people to hear a little about your background and how at the age of your mid 40s, you took a sabbatical and got a master’s in computer science and your passion for technology.

Dr. Ram Sewak Sharma 03:52

Well, Sanjay, describing the whole life’s story in this podcast would not be appropriate. I did my masters from IIT Kanpur in the year 1976 and then joined the Indian Administrative Service. I got Bihar cadre allotted to me, which means I have to work in Bihar throughout my career.

So I joined Bihar and started working in various capacities. I worked as District Magistrate of a number of districts in Bihar. There I realised that somehow Information Technology can simplify governance can accelerate it. Many things can be done which cannot be done manually. Computers were just arriving at that time and one was learning. I purchased my first computer in the year 1985, January. Since then, we did some programming because there was no standard language at that time but something called dBase2. I programmed some of their stuff. I was a district magistrate of Begusarai and there were arms thefts and a lot of these things were happening. We figured out how to match these arms. Some arms that were stolen in Katihar and will be recovered in Begusarai and you will know these are the cases. We did a lot of these applications.

So what happened was, when I came to the government of India and joined the Ministry of Finance and worked as a Joint Secretary here dealing with the World Bank and other things. My interest in the information, programming and using the computers for governance continued. I was also the transport Commissioner in Bihar in 1992-94. I started tax collection through online systems.

Then I realised that I just had a mathematics degree. I don’t have a computer science degree and I am talking about programming, systems, design and other things. Maybe the guys who are listening to me are not objecting to me because I am at a very high post and they respect that post and they will say “Yes, sir. Yes, sir”. I learned that it’s not fair on those people and it’s not fair for me to pontificate on issues which I am not formally qualified on. Since, I had a lot of interest in learning the discipline, so I said, “why don’t I take a sabbatical and do my Master’s in computer science”.

So at the age of 45, in 2000, I took a sabbatical for two years, went to The University of California and did my masters. I came back in 2002 and started working in Jharkhand; my state and by that time Bihar got divided. So, there I was working and we continued to do a lot of applications. By that time Windows had come. The whole thing had become much more user friendly. Computers also penetrated the administrative hierarchy and it became easy. We did registration, commercial taxes, municipal tax collection, municipal administration, personnel management and multiple things. Out of the seven years when I was there from 2002 to 2009, I actually did a lot of these governance reforms using technology. In 2009, I joined Aadhaar and it was called UIDAI then. Aadhaar, the name came much later, you are aware of that.

Sanjay Swamy 07:25

Wonderful. Because it’s the backstory that very few people understand and appreciate from the people who are working in the government. And it was a revelation to me when we worked together at Aadhaar or UIDAI that you were so deeply technical and passionate about. I think that rubbed off on the whole team as well.

Let’s fast forward a little bit to Aadhaar. A lot has been written about it and you’ve also recently released a book on ‘the making of Aadhaar’. Why did you write the book? What unique things did you feel were not spoken about? What motivated you to write the book?

Ram Sewak Sharma 08:20

I think that’s again, a very interesting question, Sanjay. Aadhaar is one such project which I did in my administrative life where I had a different kind of experience than what I have had earlier in other IT projects or governance roles. People who got assembled into the team came from diverse academic backgrounds and other backgrounds. Some were government officers and some were from the private sector. It was a fascinating thing to watch the passion of everybody involved in that. I have never come across such a passionate group of people who have taken that as a challenge. The beauty was most of these guys came of their own volition, voluntarily. Nandan being there, once he gave a clarion call for people to join it, there were a lot of people who joined as volunteers and sabbaticals. It was a fascinating kind of group.

I realised that we started doing the project and it was done. I left the project after four years and continued. When I left, it was $600 million Aadhaars generated. It was a running bus, in some sense as it was producing about $2 million Aadhaars per day.

I had no intention of writing a book. I am not very good at writing also. Nandan was writing a book, Nandan and Viral and so Viral got in touch with me and Nandan got in touch with me and he said, “you should give us your side of the story, your inputs and how you felt”. He framed some questions and I gave copious answers and many pages because I also felt very excited that Nandan is writing the book and the whole story of Aadhaar will be revealed there.

But when the book came out, ‘Rebooting India’, I read the book and realised that Nandan had devoted one or two chapters on Aadhaar. The rest were his other ideas into rebooting the country, its topology and other landscapes. I was not disappointed. I realised that he had many other things to say in the book. I called him one day and asked him, “Nandan you have written the book and I thought you were writing a book about Aadhaar only and your experience on Aadhaar. But you have written much beyond Aadhaar and Aadhaar finds its place in a couple of one or two chapters”. So he said, “Yes, Ram Sewak, the primary purpose was not to write about Aadhaar. The primary purpose was the ideas which can kickstart the transformation in the country or transformational ideas. So I said that if you have not written, should I write? And he said, “Yeah, sure, absolutely. You must write that, and it will be much better”. And I said, “you will write the foreword for the book”. So he said, “Yes, I’ll do that, I promise you”. That’s where I started to realise that a number of books; one by Shankar Aiyar and a couple of other critical books have also been written on Aadhaar. But they are either written to describe what Aadhaar is or to criticise what Aadhaar is.

I thought that I will write a book as to how we experience the project itself and how we experience the making of Aadhaar. The idea was to actually tell the world that large scale IT projects in the government, these are some of the lessons which we must learn. Our kind of experience and lessons coming out of that experience is what the book is all about. It is not to defend Aadhaar, it’s not my story in Aadhaar. It’s basically the collective story of all of us including you who actually contributed to making Aadhaar and the basic principles which made Aadhaar a successful project.

Sanjay Swamy 13:22

Wonderful. So let’s talk a little bit about Aadhaar itself. I think the way it has evolved is probably something that, at the time, when you got started in 2009, would have probably been at best a dream, assuming everything went well, in hindsight. What surprised you positively and what were some of the things that you thought would happen easily, but didn’t happen and what kind of surprises in that sense?

Dr. Ram Sewak Sharma 13:53

When we sat down, it was easy to say that one should have unique identities for people and the name of the authority itself was a unique identification Authority of India whether unique is an adjective to authority or to the identification, I have never been able to figure it out, even today. But the uniqueness was the overarching theme of Aadhaar.

When we started studying the issue then we realised how we can achieve uniqueness in a population of 1 billion plus. That was a daunting challenge to that extent and nobody on the planet had done that kind of exercise. The only way we could do that was essentially the biometrics because that’s the only unique feature nature has provided to the man. Biometrics are unique and fingerprint for example, Iris for example. There are other attributes also like gait or palm. So, the most easily capturable and something which does not change with time; immutable, in some sense.

So, we geared toward the fingerprints and Iris. Iris was also a big battle because people were not willing to do that. Everybody understood fingerprints but people didn’t understand Iris. They were not willing to allow capture of iris because they said it would be very costly. The machines to capture it were not there. So one was this whole issue of how to structure the project and do the project in a technological sense. But what surprised me was that there were a lot of allies for the project. Mr. Pranav Mukharjee was the finance minister at that time. He was really positive on this, because he was also the chairperson of the group of ministers which deliberated on the question of unique identities for BPL families in 2006-09. They actually recommended the Constitution of an independent authority called Unique Identity Authority of India. So he was our great supporter.

The most difficult thing which we had not imagined were actually the civil society’s response to the whole project. We had created an outreach group in the UIDAI to reach out to civil society to consult them and talk to them. Our whole idea was this was a project which was an inclusive project for a development. Project to provide identity to those who did not have one. Due to lack of identities, they were not able to access the services or any formal system and were not able to open a bank account.

These are some of the debilitating factors which identity had and we thought that the civil society groups; the NGOs will be our greatest allies in the sense that they are the ones who are for the poor and want to work for marginalised people and want them to be helped. But surprisingly, these were the guys who opposed us vehemently. The opposition came generally from four corners. One who said that this project will provide citizenship to Bangladeshis and all the Bangladeshis will become Indian citizens by getting Aadhaar. We were very clear and the government also had given us a mandate that you will create an identity for residents of India. We were only creating an identification that x is x and not even connecting citizenship with that. So citizenship is also not an attribute of Aadhaar. Aadhaar is, in fact, the world’s first eligibility less identity or identity without eligibility.

We were basically doing that with this group. Another was a group who said that it will lead to a huge amount of exclusion. People will not be able to get ration, people will not be able to get bank accounts because their biometrics will not authenticate. Third, were surveillance wallahs as they said that Aadhar will create surveillance infrastructure. These were some of the guys who opposed us and it was quite surprising because we thought they would be our supporters. So that’s one part. Again, it was surprising because we thought we were creating a common foundational identity which will be used by many departments and therefore all the departments would be happy since everyone is struggling to eliminate duplicates and fakes from their databases. We thought they would be happy. But unfortunately, many departments were lecturing us on how to create identity. So there were four thoughts. One thought was this has already been done.

Why are you doing identity when it’s already done? You have all kinds of identities like voter ID card, ration card, driving licence, your passports and everything. So why do you want to have another identity card? That’s one group. Another was ‘it’s not worth doing’. You’re investing so much money and it will not serve any purpose. What advantages will it bring about especially when you are not giving any entitlement to them? It will just create identity and you will not be entitled for anything to be decided. So why the hell should I have to accept that identity, which does not give me anything? So it’s not worth doing. The third thought was, that it is impossible to do. There were many fellows who were saying no, it’s not possible to have uniqueness in the 1.3 billion. There were some professors in the university and some social scientists who joined the bandwagon. They gave before the parliamentary Standing Committee that there will be 15% duplicates in the whole thing. They’ll just sink into duplicates; a sea of duplicates, as they say.

Some professor Moss or Ross, I am forgetting the name, also gave us this statement that you can’t do this. So the third idea many people who were in the government also said you can’t do this. And the fourth was that you had no authority to do it. So, the Home ministry, the NPR and everybody said that identity is something which is done by the Home Ministry and interior ministry. It’s a security issue and you are nobody in that part. You are attached to the Office of Planning committees. “What have you got to do with identity”. So the four thoughts; it has already been done, it’s not worth doing, it can’t be done and you have no authority to do it. These four thoughts we were continuously bombarded with which was quite surprising for us.

Sanjay Swamy 21:38

Nonetheless, I think the project has been a great success and now is the foundation of thinking ahead in Digital India and the whole India stack that has been built on top of the foundation of Aadhaar, the KYC, e-signatures and all the way through to UPI and now deeper with the consent framework. The overall digitization that has happened over the last 10 years, including GST and the open framework coming for credit lending and things like that. People from the startup ecosystem are now seeing companies like big examples of Jio that have gone from zero to 300 million subscribers purely with Aadhaar and e-sign. But even the smaller companies are able to open bank accounts or brokerage accounts with the e-KYC even just with OTP based on e-KYC. It has already proven a lot of the transformation. But looking at it from an entrepreneur’s perspective in the next 5-10 years where we are expecting massive transformation in India, huge GDP growth, through digitization as a vehicle for inclusive growth. What would you see as some really exciting opportunities that you would advise entrepreneurs to tackle?

Dr. Ram Sewak Sharma 23:05

The fundamental principle which we should remember is that Aadhaar has been designed as a foundational identity and digital identity on the cloud. A verifiable through multiple factors like Iris, fingerprint, and now UIDAI is also introducing face authentication. That makes things very easy for any domain where identity authentication or verification is required. The use cases are just a matter of imagination. You can imagine a large number of use cases and we had about 200 applications for user authentication, user agencies when we were there in the UIDAI. People were excited that this can be used.

So, ultimately, I am not an innovator or a startup advisor who can advise but I can say that wherever you require identity, there is hardly any place or any transaction, where the identity disclosure or identity verification is not the first step. Formal or informal, when you knock on a door and say I am so and so, this particular disclosure of identity whether that identity disclosure is good enough or whether a robust authentication is required to prove that you are you. That is something which will depend from the transaction to transaction. Therefore, whether you want a very robust authentication or less robust authentication. Fortunately UIDAI has provided all of it. For example, you can have biometric authentication through Iris or fingerprints. You can have OTP based electronic KYC authentication and you can have demographic offline authentication.

All flavours of authentication can be provided and people can take.

So, essentially Aadhaar provides only one simple service; authentication. Aadhaar provides another one which is generation of identity, which is a lifetime immutable, verifiable, and it’s offline. These two, one being creation of ID and other on an ongoing basis which is the verification of ID. These are the two services which Aadhaar offers and one can build a number of things on top of that.

Sanjay Swamy 25:55

Great! Let’s switch gears to the COVID-19 vaccine situation and the role you’re playing now to the extent you can share with us. What is the high level thought process of going about? We have such a massive population that we need to get the vaccine to. It’d be great if you could share how you’re thinking about it and what we are going to see in the next 6 to 12 months in the country?

Dr. Ram Sewak Sharma 26:24

As you are aware, the Honourable Prime Minister launched a vaccination drive on 16th of January. You are also aware that this is the largest and the biggest vaccination programme. 200,000 vaccinations in a single day in any country is actually a very large programme. The fact that, with the population of India, we are going to have vaccination for one sixth of humanity. That is also a very massive number. Scaling up and actually making sure that everybody gets vaccinated is covered. You can’t do it without a very robust digital infrastructure which needs to be made.

And I have been put on that job by the government to oversee the building of that infra. So, that’s where we will be recording the vaccination event of each and every individual and It will be completely online recording. We will issue a certificate then and there so that everybody has a certificate whether in paper or digital or in ways you can access your certificate. Then you know when to go for the vaccination, next dose etc. That’s something which we will be doing.

With regard to the speed, it will depend on the availability of vaccination and how we prioritise the people who are going to be vaccinated. For example, in this phase, we are covering the health workers and the frontline workers like police, Army, security forces, transport and other parts. So this is the way it is going. Thereafter, the next phase is supposed to cover people of 50 years plus and also those who are less than 50 years but have certain comorbidities. So that is what the next phase is. That’s the visibility which we have till now. With regard to the timelines, a lot will depend on the availability of vaccines and other things. There’s a huge amount of clarity so far as the way privatisation is happening.

Sanjay Swamy 29:14

If you could just share a little about what that digital experience will be for somebody because we are doing things far more in the form of a certificate itself that somebody will receive that somebody can verify if I’m getting on an aeroplane, for example. It could be through a digi-locker or a QR code. It would be great if you could share your thoughts on that.

Dr. Ram Sewak Sharma 29:36

Sure! The certificate which is being issued is digitally signed with QR code, so you can verify the truth and go back to the site and say this is a genuine certificate. It will work for travels and for other kinds of things. People will be able to self register themselves for vaccination. It will be like UIDAI where we used to have a system where people could enroll for Aadhaar and they would be shown the nearest stations around them. That’s how it will happen. That experience we want to replicate here where it will become very convenient for people to actually choose a place and time of their vaccination. This will all depend on the availability. It’s like getting a reservation in a train or a plane where if you have the capacity of 100 people and already 50 have registered, then there is a vacancy but already 100 have registered, then there’ll be no vacancy on that day on that centre. So, you can choose either another day or another centre.

This is the kind of infra which we want to put. One can register on the helpline, one can also register on the portal, one can probably register on Aarogya setu. Aarogya Setu is an application which is available with about 15 crore people so they can register on them. In fact, we will be sending the certificate also on our Aarogya setu so you can show that on your mobile phone. So this way, we will be able to have complete communication with the people and they will easily register themselves into the system.

Sanjay Swamy 31:45

Great. I’m sure you’re going to leave no stone unturned to make sure this is done both efficiently and in a resident friendly way, sir. So really looking forward to it. And as always, I can speak on behalf of the entire startup ecosystem, if there’s any way we can support, feel free to reach out to all of us.

One last question I have for you which I asked all my podcast guests who have been our guests and have been here for several years and have seen so much and much more intended as advice for the youngsters. But what would you have advised yourself in hindsight to the Ram Sewak Sharma sir off 20 years ago and advice to today’s youngsters?

Dr. Ram Sewak Sharma 32:30

No, I’m not really very clear about your question. You are saying what advice would I give to the youngsters of today or what advice would I give myself when I was young?

Sajay Swamy 33:00

Maybe both?

Dr. Ram Sewak Sharma 32:10

No, I don’t think I’m really qualified to give advice to the youngsters. But broadly, I will say from my own experience that you must continue to learn because that’s one of the things which we often do not do. We often continue to discover things like we say, “Jugaali krte rehte hain, poorana jo seekha hai usi ko bolte rehte hain”. It’s very important that you should continue to upgrade yourself to learn and be sincere in your approach and behaviour. These are some of the things which I have learned in my whole life. If you continue to upgrade, learn and continue to work sincerely and are honest in purpose, then god always helps you out and opportunities come your way. Certainly.

Sanjay Swamy 33:46

Yes, absolutely. That has been the greatest privilege and I can also say from my interactions with you sir and the small involvement we had in the Aadhaar programme and how we have seen it evolve over the last 10 years in India, there is always a better way to do things. Being able to be a part of that opportunity is the privilege of a lifetime. So, I wanted to thank you, sir, on behalf of a lot of people for the amazing service and bringing all of this infrastructure together. And thank you for your time today.

Dr. Ram Sewak Sharma 34:25

Thank you Sanjay for having me on this podcast. And I’m sure we will continue our associations in the near future also. I’m retired, so I was living a very happy life for three months,last September and now also I’m very happy because sometimes the boredom starts to set in when you would have nothing to do. Initially it’s a great experience, but then you start feeling, “kutch krna chahiye, kutch krna chahiye”. I think God and the government has given me this opportunity to work on this project. Thank you.

Sanjay Swamy 35:10

Absolutely. Thank You Sir.

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