New Delhi: Ram Sewak Sharma is a man in a hurry. His room in the Planning Commission building is quiet, but you can sense his excitement in the way his fingers move between tapping the keyboard, drumming on the table and gesticulating in the air.
As director general of the nascent Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), Sharma is expected, over the next four years, to not only collect reliable data on 600 million Indians, but to also assign them unique numbers and ensure that state governments use these numbers in their interactions with people.
Given the allotted time frame and the quantity of work, Sharma’s hyperactivity is understandable. But this keyed-up energy apart, he is wholly unfazed.
Number cruncher: UIDAI director general Ram Sewak Sharma says the Unique Identification project is the most exciting job he has ever had. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Sharma, an officer of the 1978 Indian Administrative Services batch, has one degree in math from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and another in computer science from the University of California. His technological understanding is coupled with 30 years’ worth of experience in implementing information technology (IT) in government departments, first in Jharkhand and then in Bihar. Those 30 years have prepared him for some of the challenges—technological, logistical and bureaucratic—that will lie in his new path.
Indubitably, the UID project is larger than anything he’s done thus far. “It’s a challenge, I love these kinds of jobs,” he says, bouncing in his chair. “And this is the most exciting one I’ve had.”
The project has many dimensions, but as far as he’s concerned, the main goal is to help the poor and marginalized. The government initiates a number of schemes for this segment, but most end up relying on inaccurate or “very inadequate” data. Consequently, the benefits of such programmes never reach their intended recipients.
For their part, the poor, even when aware of these schemes, find it difficult to register for them. Data verification is long and complicated, and it has to be repeated at every involved institution. “A migrant worker in Mumbai can’t open a no-frills bank account in the city,” explains Sharma. “His documents are often not accepted by banks because they find them difficult to verify.”
That’s where the UID will— hopefully—come in. Before a person is issued the number, there will be a single, thorough verification of documents. “The procedure,” says Sharma, “has been designed keeping in mind the ground realities.”
The first step is the physical vetting of documents. In some circumstances, this can be substituted or augmented by an introduction-based system that relies on the testimony of other people, or even on census data. Biometric devices will link a person with her UID, reducing the possibility of fakes or duplicates in the system. The result will give migrant workers access to a wide set of services, including a bank account, with this single number. At this point in the conversation, Sharma can barely contain himself. His fingers execute a spirited march on the table. The idea is beautifully simple, yet incredibly involved. It’s too large a project to be executed solely by the small group of people at UIDAI, so they will rely on registrars—essentially government bodies such as rural development departments—for data verification.
Isn’t it too ambitious? Well yes, Sharma says. But it needs to be done.
In his earlier stint in Jharkhand, Sharma had faced much opposition, being transferred nine times in six years. Aren’t there chances of something similar happening in this case—if the government loses steam, for instance? “Of course that can happen. I am a civil servant and I can get transferred, but I’m doing my job,” says Sharma matter-of-factly.
One thing he is assured of, however, is the backing of Nandan Nilekani, the head of UIDAI, who hand-picked him for the job. Nilekani isn’t familiar with Sharma’s work in Jharkhand but says that he came very highly recommended. “His understanding of technology is solid," he says, “and he has a lot of experience in implementation and execution. I’m extremely lucky to have him."
Sharma’s former colleagues in Jharkhand also think highly of him. Shailesh Kumar Singh, the current information technology secretary in the state, says that Sharma’s applications have continued to be “extremely useful, and have absolutely no shortcomings.”
Some of these applications, such as the treasury management information system, have now moved beyond what, in Gladwellian tone, Sharma calls the “tipping point”. “They’ve become too widespread, too commonly used...too many people have seen their benefits, for the government or any other agency to be able to go back on them,” he says proudly.
So where—after how many months, or after how many numbers issued—does Sharma see a similar tipping point for the UID programme? “The day we are able to effectively demonstrate to the common man that having a UID can make life easier,” he says, “is when we will reach that point of irreversibility.” By now, the drumming has reached a crescendo, which is as clear a signal as any. The symphony is over; it’s time to get back to work.