About the Guest Transcript

N S Ramnath and Charles Assisi

We have often either ridiculed the entire project or Aadhaar or always seen it with suspecting eyes. The premise is simple, there has been quite a bit of uproar on the entire system's security and privacy. Since, it contains THE most important data of 120 crore people, there is every reason to be concerned. What is the status of the project as it stands today. How has it performed? Has it been able to deliver its intended purpose. This episode is all about it, tune in to listen.
The guests, Charles Assisi and N S Ramnath are the co-founders at Founding Fuel, which is nationwide publication. Both Charles and Ramnath happen to be seasoned journalists. While Charles was the Managing Editor at Forbes India, Ramnath was previously with Forbes India, and Economic


Shubham(00:00) -
What digital product service or platform Do you think has got the fastest billion users or registrations? Now you would typically think it to be, you know, Google, or Apple or Facebook or Instagram or something. But the right answer is Aadhaar.

Shubham(00:24) -
Yes, I thought is the fastest digital platform to hit 100 crores users across the world in just a span of about five years and six months. This is one incredible story of digitizing India. And we have two people with us today who went deep into researching about this project to present an elaborate picture of one of the most audacious projects that has never been tried at this scale before. N.S Ramnath and Charles Assisi together wrote the book to share the story of the 12-digit number that put India in the front row in the quest to digitize India. Chax, co-founder and director at founding fuel while previously he was the managing director at Forbes India. Ramnath is a senior writer and part of the founding team at founding few. He was previously with Forbes, India and economic times. So, let us welcome them. Hi, Ram. Hi, Charles. A very warm welcome to secrets of storytellers. How are you guys?

Charles(01:17) -
Hey, Shubham. Hi. Thanks so much for having us over. pleasure to be with you.

Shubham(01:23) -
Thank you. Pleasure,

Charles(01:23) -
Shubham, thanks for the opportunity.

Shubham(01:26) -
Thanks. Thank you. Thank you. And I will tell you that this is the first time we have two authors or two co-authors together on the show. So this is a first and a special for me. So thank you again.

Ram(01:37) -
Oh, looking forward to the show.

Shubham(01:39) -
Great. So what what intrigued, both of you to write on adhaar?

Charles(01:45) -
Okay, so that's a good question. So, let me put it this way. This goes back many years, actually. Actually, in our earlier assignment, I used to be based out of Mumbai, okay. And alarm was in a sort of our office in Bangalore, you know, at our weekly meetings, you know, and I edit meetings, our Ram had latched on to the narrative that was emerging out of, you know, and we have described this in the book as well. But, you know, Ram had latched on to this whole project, and he was feeding us about this story that had started coming in. And I think Ram you should probably, you know, articulate in much more detail. But, you know, the, the project other had already got her attention a long while ago. And we had started reporting on it in our earlier assignment, and Rahm was perhaps one of the first people you know, in the country who had already, you know, started featuring it, in fact, practically everyone was interested in it, because, you know, another Nilekani had latched on, and as you know, right. So, you know, as an editor, editorial team, obviously, all of us were very, very interested in it. But what the real importance of it was something that ROM had started articulated, and had already articulated to us. And the other day, too, was just about beginning to take shape, right. And then when we set out on the founding field journey, it was pretty clear to us that, you know, this is a narrative that is going to explode. And, you know, one story is not going to do justice to this, because Ram had already done so much reporting on this, we could see that that kind of cast of characters in this head exploded, you know, what is a storyteller, digital storytellers dream come true, so to speak. You know, when you look at it from one perspective, you and I'm sure you understand that and on the one hand, you know, you have someone who has come in from the private sector and who was into government there. On the other hand, you have, you know, people who are opposed to this project, everyone has an opinion on this. And then on the other hand, you have the private sector who wants to jump into this, you have politicians who have views. So, you know, Hey, come on, there are stories of all kinds of Bill Gates, saying, you know, this is the best thing since sliced bread. Then you have people who saying, you know, you know, we're going to dismantle this, and this included the current Prime Minister Modi, you know, right. Yeah. We're giving dismantle this. And then, you know, he assumes office and he's a champion, right, as far as I'm concerned, you know, what a fantastic story to tell. to come in and, you know, yeah, sure. Sure.

Ram(04:47) -
I'm feeling lucky. You know, like Charles said, you know, the, our interest in stories started with the start of other itself. When Nandan Nilekani moved from Infosys to the US. Da, that was the time when that we got really interested. And about nine months into the project, my colleague, Mr. Jaishankar, and I, we did a story in Forbes, India, and there was a huge interest there. And like Charles said, you know, amazing set of characters, lots of ups and downs. You know, it's, it's a story that you can't miss. Right,

Shubham(05:23) -
Right. And between the two of you who came up with the idea, or was it more like a mutual decision to penned the book?

Ram(05:30) -
I'll start with that, Charles. And I must say that it starts with Charles and me who came up with the idea of the book. It's actually each member of our founding team in the Jade Gupta Swami, right, say, Covey, everyone. So it was kind of, you know, it's not just Charles, me and Charles, we'll be able to add more, or to actually how we decided on the book, right?

Charles(05:54) -
Yeah. Because, you know, the thing is that, you know, should this narrative be told, you know, and how should it be told, because, like, you know, the, the cast of characters, and there's, they're so complex, right? And the narratives in this are so complex, it's not funny. And each time we would meet someone, they are incredibly powerful personalities, right? They can convince you with your version of the truth, right? That their version of the truth is that we go back to it when, you know what, today we have come back to the truth, this is the truth. And this is where the story is, you know, and then you know, you only have, you know, you know, whether it be in the Gita home ecology, or the you know, Swami, for instance, you know, did sit back and did you know, just pause and listen, really, you know, by just the other day, you guys, you know, that was it? Right? You know, and it's, it's not that, you know, the where is the holy grail? So you got to push yourself out? I don't think it was, it was one of us. It was a team effort. It's entirely coincidental that our names appear on the byline is as altered as co-authors of the Great, great,

Shubham(07:22) -
So just vile, you know, Aadhaar has definitely revolutionized and you know, is the process of verifying identity for almost every service in the country. There is another project India stack, which was started with the intent to use Aadhaar for the welfare programs. Do you think that intent has been served well, until now,

Charles(07:42) -
So let me put it this way. Let me put it this way. Shabnam Aadhaar, and India stack? You know, you can't you can't differentiate. Beautiful, okay, right now, India stack? cheap. Okay. What's the basic problem you're trying to resolve? Okay. In India, you need what is the biggest problem we have in India? Right?

Shubham(08:05) -
I think scale.

Charles(08:06) -
No, no, no, let's, let's go down to brass tacks. Okay. That's what I'm about next. What's your name?

Shubham(08:12) -
I'm Shubham

Charles(08:13) -
What's the full name?

Shubham(08:16) -
Shubham Agarwal. Oh, where? on your on which document? Does your name appear? Shubham Agarwal. On my license on my timecard

Charles(08:28) -
What does your name of it does it appear a Shubham? Well, on your driving license,

Shubham(08:33) -
Yeah. Shubham one in my driving license.

Charles(08:35) -
And on your pan card.

Shubham(08:37) -
Shubham while again, but yeah, there's that the difference is somewhere they have put Shubham Agarwal with a single G and somewhere they have put Agarwal without G.

Charles(08:49) -
Right now, you get what I'm trying to say. I think I get Yeah. Okay. So, now you could be a Shubham Agarwal or Shubham Agarwal. Now, we have this problem in India where you need a clean database to begin with. Right? Right, you need an identity. So, which is on the one hand, now, let's the year here's the thing that you and I, you know, we're on you know, we speak because we have an identity. Right now, mold stated intent behind project Aadhaar was that, you know, there are at least 400 to 450 million people in India, who do not have an identity at all, can you imagine not being able to prove who you are, you are whom you claim to be who you are? Right. Right. Now, if you say that you are sure? Yeah, sure. How do you prove whom you are who you are? Hmm, so just giving an identity document. So once you have an identity document, yeah. Now, that identity document can be linked. So how do you do that? You know, so that's so that's where the whole thing begins from a once, you know, once an identity is provided, yeah, then there are other services that can be, you know, there's other infrastructure that can be linked to it, which is the, you know, ekyc part for it, you know, yeah, digital structure and Ram, you want to just build upon that the India stack part of it. So, identity is the first layer of India stack, you know, ROM you want to come in and just build upon that.

Ram(10:32) -
Yeah, sure, absolutely. And that is a problem that we don't realize, right, many of us have multiple identities, and none of us have identities, that identification cards that will work across the country, correct. But in many cases, you know, people when they leave their hometowns and go to, you know, other cities, virtually without an identity card that will be accepted in their new city. Right. And that is one of the problems that, you know, we face even today to a large extent, especially with a large migrant population, right. If you look at what's happening right now, one of the things that people like Abhijit Banerjee and others have been kind of suggesting, was that, you know, what really stopped us from taking care of the immigrant population, you know, during that time, like, pandemic, you know, and one reason is that they were not able to kind of, either prove the identity, or, you know, we don't have the portability of the ration card, and, and so on. Right. So, it basically starts with that, right. And the second thing is, we don't, you know, have a very good birth registry, or bad dentistry, which is the case with many of the Western countries like the US, almost every birth is registered in India. And now you can say that to a large extent, in majority, or, you know, maybe 95 98% of the births are registered, right. But if you look at, you know, 20 years back, or 30 years back, that was not the case, which means that if you are a 40-year-old person or a 30-year-old person, there's a chance that your birth was not registered. Right, right. So, there are, there are serious issues and, and our identification card system was basically based on a mix of the functional identity cards, right? Like your license, it could be a ration card, voters ID card and all that we didn't have a foundation, like, whose single purpose is to just say, you know, you are who you claim to be, right. So, but when you actually make identification system based on various functional identities, a lot of people, you know, slip through the cracks, right. So, the idea behind that was to kind of make sure that everyone gets an identity. But, you know, of course, you know, the big question is, Is that enough? Of course, that is not enough, you need other systems, but whether, to the extent, your broad question was, you know,

Shubham(13:07) -
Have you been able to use that exactly

Ram(13:11) -
What it felt its purpose was very small, you know, very limited, very narrow, which is an identity, you know, number right, a digital identity, every Indian, and I think it is close to doing that.

Shubham(13:24) -
Right, right.

Shubham(13:25) -
I understand, you know, because the problems are very small. So, so I understand where the, the project was intended towards. Yeah, I

Charles(13:35) -
Mean, just the fact that, you know, you can you have, and you can just prove when you claim to be you are, yeah, that is a huge thing. Otherwise, you know, you face it, I mean, you know, sitting you're in urban India, or you know, when you can otherwise, let's face it, you know, there is bonded labour in our country, because you don't have identity. Right. And that is it is unacceptable. It is just unacceptable. Yeah.

Shubham(14:01) -
So, just with a system, which has such sensitive data stored, and, you know, I'm sure you, you've got this question multiple times, the security of the system becomes the most important aspect, right. And there have been instances of internal and external abuse in the past, do you think the government has been careless, or, you know, with a project of this scale, it can sometimes be difficult to manage, and hence, these areas can be neglected, given that they don't repeat.

Charles(14:30) -
Let me put it this way. Let me put it this way. And this is a good question. And it's an interesting question. And I totally, totally understand where the opposition to this comes from. And I completely empathize. And I buy the arguments as well, you know, because when you're building a project, what kind of scale you know, and this is something that we've attempted to address in the book as well. There is opposition that is bound to come in because the more amount of the greater number of data points that you collect. You know, the higher the chances of errors creeping in, right? So, for example, you know, now let's look at it this way, when this project was being taught about Trump, correct me if I'm wrong, if my memory is just kind of just goes a bit fuzzy on this one. But, you know, given half a chance, you know, the whole ministry, for instance, under Home Security is, would love to have access and control to as many as much data as possible. On the one hand, and which is, which actually panned out in the background. And then on the other hand, now, but but but but mind you, he has a job, the issue, and this is something we had multiple rounds of conversations with, and we listened into the narrative. But when you are attempting to collect data for a billion people, yeah, you know, what is your name? That's a billion data points, right? What's your name? Plus? gender? That's a billion into two, right? That's 2 billion data. You know, so it can it can just multiply now, as oppose to which when it is, you know, it goes to the finance ministry of finance ministries view would be completely different, they would try to look at it in terms of, you know, what is the most efficient way in which I collect and access this data point. So, in this case, they just need the data in terms of, you know, how do I ensure that this data can be collected so that I can deliver to the intended beneficiaries? So this new kind of tussles happen within the government and it has happened in the government. So that is one way to look at it. Now, if these factors have played out, there are bureaucratic tussles that happen, and there are multiple such narratives, you know, can go on and on about that. But the short answer to your candle data being compromised, I would simply submit that if there is anyone who claims that you know, that any technology cannot be compromised, is lying. Right? It all, all technologies are susceptible or vulnerable, and, you know, those who are there, they just have to keep doing their best to stay on top of it, right, because someone or the other at some point in time, is going to do their damnedest best to access it, right. And we just need to keep trying to put rules, checks and balances in place. So yes, opposition is bound to happen. And I think it is it is good, it is healthy. And it keeps people on their toes. So, these are my two bits around your you're going to Yeah, absolutely.

Ram(17:54) -
No, security is a cat and mouse game. And it goes on forever. And I think what are there, as highlighted is that I know everyone now understands data protection and data security. Right. Right. So, data protection is important. And also, they know that it's not just about other, you know, government collects a lot of data, businesses, Google, Facebook, you know, everything collects a lot of data. So, I think the broader question is, like Charles said, you know, whether we have the institutional mechanisms to protect citizens data, whether we have laws and other institutions, we are still struggling to pass the data protection law. Right. And, and it is not just about law, right, you know, you can't actually solve all problems through law, which, which seems to have been the, you know, broad approach of EU, right, European Union, we need a mix of technology and law. So we also have to ask, whether the government and also the businesses have access to best in class technology and cybersecurity expertise in the country. And I don't think we are there at we have to build it. Right. And, you know, to a large extent, you know, even with law and even with very good technology, a lot of it will depend on how literate are we about the digital risk? Right. You know, I'm sure you know, that the weakest point in any, in our data security is our human beings themselves, right. So, I think we need all the three legal institution mechanisms, good technology, and digital risk literacy, I think are just about other it's about, you know, privacy and data protection for citizens, you know, that is the lens that we really have to look at, only then will clearly be able to solve the issue. Right. Okay.

Shubham(19:50) -
So Ram, they're quite polarized views about the entire project, you know, people like Amartya Sen being against Aadhaar from the get go and attaching right subsidies and sanction without high was one of his contentions against it.

Ram(20:03) -

Shubham(20:04) -
Is it a more fundamental concern with the project?

Ram(20:08) -
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, the polarization happens because of how we frame the problem. Right. Now, there's a lot of difference between saying, for example, Amartya Sen has been against Dada from the get go. That's the thing that Amartya Sen has been against other mandate, you know, other being mandatory, right? for accessing food, especially when the system does not have the intent and capacity correct, because this will lead to exclusion. So that is a different way of framing the problem. And when we actually think problem, and certainly, then what happens is, you know, either as good or bad that it becomes a binary kind of debate. Right, right. But you actually face the problem, as probably a restatement of Amartya Sen is concerned with the problem is really exclusion, right? Whether technology leads to exclusion. And it is not just about this thing, you know, he has also expressed concern about the system capacity, that is something that he has been writing about for a very long time. So, when we frame the problem that way, then we kind of look at it as a how do we improve this system? How do we, you know, I think the biggest problem is, you know, technology by itself is not neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral. Yeah. It is, it amplifies the good and bad that already exists in the system. Right. And I think God has done that, you know, in some cases, it has helped a lot of people. In many cases, Jonathan, for example, it has actually harmed people. So, the question was, other basically did what technology would do. And, you know, there are basic concerns about the project. And also, the more importantly, there are basic concerns about the system capacity of our country, you know, the intent and capacity of the public distribution system, the entire bureaucracy, how we work together to solve some of the major issues.

Shubham(22:04) -
Right, right. I agree that, you know, technology is an enabler, and probably we should look at it like that. And these problems that have creeped in are probably because of the structures or the policies that we have, and probably a good thing is that, you know, projects like these, bring them out front and ask us to solve them. Right. So now, again, experts say that data is the new oil, and with Azar the government is definitely sitting on an oil well, do you think we are ready to leverage it? Or do we still need to equip ourselves with better infrastructures physical and legal in order to use it?

Charles(22:41) -
Well, I put this, you know, actually a good one, you know, I can we can get into a, you know, a day long debate. You know, this data is the new oil thing? I don't know. So, it's a good a good line, it's a good line. I think there's a lot of money that has been raised.

Shubham(23:06) -
I agree. Yeah.

Charles(23:09) -
Yes, there is much that can be gained from data that is much can be gleaned from data. And clearly, clearly there is a lot that is there in data, right? My limited submission here is that I just want to place on one Satya Okay. What we have done until now is that India's job, fantastic job with delivering an identity, right to HP project Aadhaar. Okay, the India sitting on an oil well, in terms of Aadhaar and all that, you know, India stack had gone to plan on all of that, you know, yes, perhaps it would have been a different narrative, how the narrator could have panned out would have been completely different. The digital highways would have been different. But this is the way I see it currently is that, you know, this is the Wild West. So far, you know, I, I see every, you know, we don't know what we are signing, you know, everyone wants data. You know, I don't see any movement. And I'm very, very disappointed, quite honestly, in terms of the legal processes, the framework, the digital literacy, and particularly on part of the government, and I'm sure that a lot of the people the particularly the more proactive people in government wanted the digital empowerment and the you know, the deeper you know, move the needle on that moon. There has not been any movement on that needle. Are we? are we sitting on that? No, I don't I don't think we have made much headway on that. Really. But is there a is the Government of India sitting on some big oil? Well, no, I don't think they're sitting on it. Or you will also to speak, really? In fact, if there is anyone who's sitting on an oil? Well, it is. These are the private entities, and how about our data be handled, how water should be managed? Or these are issuing that regulators ought to be debating? And I don't think there is any consensus around that. Or clarity on that, at least, I don't see that in recent times. Right. But, um, what do you what would you.0 take be on that?

Ram(25:46) -
Yeah, one of the interesting things that happened recently is that I think yesterday or day before yesterday, Nithya Yoga had, you know, put out the document on data implement and prediction architecture. And it was very interesting, and it has been on works for a few years now. And they are put it out for, you know, feedback from the public and so on. Right. So, the underlying assumption there is very interesting, right? You know, it is not just about protection, but it's also about tempo. Right. So it basically is a framework that allows you to share data, you know, in a very secure way, it's actually useful, I know, you can think of several use cases, you know, where you use your data to get some benefits, right, for example, you know, show your health data to get better insurance or, you know, savings data to get loans. So, you move from a asset based lending to a cash flow based lending, right, several use cases. So, I think the big debate now, is that, okay, data might be the new oil, but whether we as individuals, as citizens, whether we can actually make use of it, or whether, you know, it's only the big businesses, like the aliens, or Facebook, or Google, or, you know, the governments, which actually, you know, drill them and use them. So that is that, that I think, is a really big debate, and I think deeper offers a very different way of looking at the whole thing. And we'll be, we'll be interesting to see how that goes for. Right. Right. So, it's been a, it's been more than a decade now, since the inception of UI di on 28. Jan 2009, if I'm not wrong, anyone lesson that you think, India and the world can learn from this, this entire project? Did that technology should closely work with the government, private sector, and the communities to make technology useful for the society. So I think that they, you know, compete with each other, you know, don't compete with each other, collaborate with each other, right, and look at, you know, more dialogue, more discussions, instead of actually fighting, you know, private sector fight with the government, and, you know, activists fight, you know, think of ways to work together, so it's useful, so. So the technologists must realize the limitations of technology. And people who traditionally oppose technology should kind of realize that technology is probably useful in many ways. And government businesses work together. So that that would be the big lesson. Right? Right.

Shubham(28:31) -
Great. All right. So that was a great discussion. And that brings us to the concluding section of the podcast. This is an interesting one. And this is a common section across all all the episodes that we have. This is where I asked the secret about the book, or about, you know, the journey while you're writing the book, that probably you've not shared on any on any platform till date. So, what would you like to share with us? How we do in a tricky situation to be picked up. So it could be anything regarding the book or about journey while you're writing the book. So

Ram(29:19) -
Shall I start? Sure, okay. And at one point, you know, Charles and I, when we were discussing on the book, we said that, hey, we have written so much, you know, we write 1000-word pieces very often, chapter is some words or, you know, this, like, you know, it takes seven days to write a chapter, right? But actually, though, to be extremely tough, writing a book is very, very hard. Because, no, it's not just about writing you put your heart and soul into it, and for the sun to develop a huge respect for everyone who creates something, right. So, I think that that is something that you know, this this huge change that at one point Thinking that, you know, we have been writing all our, you know, entire career as journalists. But

Shubham(30:09) -
It's not so easy must have been difficult because you are practice and you have a frame of mind where you write, like you said, 1000 longer talking about long articles or pieces. And certainly moving to a book where you have to have an entire theme to it must have been difficult for the shift in the morning, you do that still do the 1000 word thing, while during the night or whatever time you were writing the book, you have to completely change that frame. Yeah,

Ram(30:39) -
I think someone said the difference between writing a short story and a novel is like, the difference between swimming and tennis.

Charles(30:53) -
Yeah, so if you ask me, I think one thing I think both of us would probably agree upon, for me, I, I certainly think what I have developed is a huge respect for politicians and bureaucrats. Popular perception is that politicians are, you know, they just say things for the heck of it. Yeah. But as we realized that everything that they see is said, there, you know, they said, for a reason, what is said in the public domain, it said very, very strategically, very, very tactically. And it is it is said for a particular reason, and they have thought about it very, very carefully. They don't shoot their mouth off. So that was a huge, huge learning. And I think one thing I realized, do not hate but with a politician on stage, or for that matter, anyway, because we will lose, who will lose, they have thought through very, very carefully. And they have fought their position very, very carefully. They are not idiots. They are not dumb. Yeah. Know what they're doing. They have if they're if they have gotten into positions of power, it is because they know what they said. So, and what they say when they are in opposition is because they have to oppose something, it does not mean that they necessarily mean it. It is because the job of the opposition is to oppose when they come into power, it will change. So, you know, there's only so much you can take them. So, I've developed a huge respect for our politicians. And if possible, at some point in time with the readers change my like I said, it's changed my worldview of how I look at politicians and those in government, and if possible, at some point in time. Yeah, I would I would really like to take a public policy.

Shubham(33:08) -
Well, that's, that's great. In fact, though, you know, I read somewhere or someone told me that, you know, we ridicule politicians, we call them names, but try to become one and then see what it takes to be there.

Charles(33:22) -
Yeah, particularly in India, it's not easy. This is not an easy country to manage. Absolutely.

Shubham(33:29) -
Wonderful. So thank you, once again, for sharing those bits from your own journey. And I hope you enjoy the discussion. I loved it. And I'm sure the listeners would love it, too.

Charles(33:41) -
Hey, thanks so much. Thanks so much for taking as much time and offering us so much time. We hope it will work your time.

Shubham(33:50) -
Totally. Totally. Thanks. Okay. Thank you to all the listeners. This is Shubham signing off. Bye.

The Story of Aadhaar with N S Ramnath and Charles Assissi


Related Episodes

Indranil Chakraborty

Storytelling has been revered as one of the most important skills since it ensures you leave an impact on the listener and communicate effectively.

Take me to the episode
Suresh Sadagopan

A majority of us have a hard time planning our personal finances, often. While we know it is important and we intend to manage them better, we are lost as to where to start.

Take me to the episode
Harish Bhat

What does it take to become a Brand Custodian at the Tatas, who better to answer than the Brand Custodian himself.

Take me to the episode