By Nikhila Natarajan
If millions of India’s poorest who made dangerous journeys on empty stomachs and with empty pockets during the COVID-19 lockdown must not endure such misery again, the next wave of population scale digital infrastructure must enable dramatic reduction in their cost of access to food, lending and healthcare irrespective of physical location, chief architect of the world’s largest biometric identity platform Aadhaar told IANS.
“Nobody wants to lend you $100 for two days! The permanent solution is to look at access, affordance and choice and say how can we dramatically reduce the cost and dramatically increase access and affordability. And if you do that, we can solve a bunch of things,” Dr. Pramod Varma, chief architect of Aadhaar and India Stack, said in the context of those who have been hit hardest by the domestic COVID-19 outbreak.
By June 28, the coronavirus has sickened more than 500,000 and killed more than 16,000 in India, according to the Johns Hopkins global tracker.
In April and May, during an exodus unlike anything seen in India since Partition in 1947, India’s migrant workers, the backbone of the country’s labour force, spilled out of big cities that were shuttered and willed themselves to walk back hundreds of miles to their homes. Their journeys documented deep chasms in the social delivery system despite India’s more than 10-year long journey towards presence-less, paperless, and cashless service delivery for the masses.
Like in the case of migrant labourer Rampukar Pandit, for instance. Pandit’s image is among the most haunting from the migrant exodus last month. Clutching a phone, exhausted and helpless, Pandit breaks down when he learns that his son is unwell, in another state. Pandit’s son died. Like in Pandit’s case, food, money and healthcare were elusive for India’s poorest in their time of greatest need.
How could the next wave of digital infrastructure make a difference in these Indians’ lives, we asked Varma. Varma’s answer follows the mental model hard coded into the Aadhaar framework: Unbundling the problem to its micro state. Access first, affordability next.
“Imagine,” says Varma, “if he (Pandit) had an identity he can prove, and a bank account he can prove and access to credit he can prove and get a small sachet of money at any post office anywhere in the country.”
“Similarly, we have been arguing for portability of public food distribution.”
According to Varma, former chairman of Unique Identification Authority of India Nandan Nilekani had “explicitly recommended” PDS portability riding on Aadhaar.
“You can’t double dip, you only have one identity. So how does it matter whether a person is in Bihar or Tamil Nadu. It’s your right. If you’re entitled to food, you should get food anywhere. Now finally with COVID, they all woke up and they said let’s make PDS available. They (migrants) could have had access to food in any shop as they walked.”
Based on insights from the last 10 years since the Aadhaar project began, Varma says problems at population scale can’t be solved by “one more solution or one more website”.
“It’s about building infrastructure that allows many people to build many solutions on top of it.”
Even as the India Stack technical infrastructure evolves, Varma believes technologists must double down on the twin concepts of “resilience” and “combinatorial building blocks” for a digital infrastructure that evolves with a diverse society, at scale.
“That means our ability to reshape readjust and still manage when something else goes wrong. When schools are closed, does the learning continue? When the workplace is disrupted, does work continue?”
Varma says, “We have to be so humble. Put our heads down, continue to believe that we have a long way to go, but we are here, we are building this infrastructure. Society, marketplace, and the government are all innovating on top of it, but the innovation is not costly because underpinning level blocks are available, and you can combine them to provide solutions.”
India Stack provides the technology backbone for Digital India initiatives. Its layers such as eSign, Digital Locker, and Unified Payment Interface (UPI) are all working at population scale in India.
(Nikhila Natarajan is on Twitter @byniknat)