Here's Nandan Nilekani's 'unique' growth equation for India

Speaking at an event organised by EkStep Foundation, Nandan Nilekani says digital transformation helped India achieve in 9 years what would have taken 47 years by traditional means.

Here's Nandan Nilekani's 'unique' growth equation for India

Tuesday August 29, 2023,

5 min Read

To most of us, Nandan Nilekani needs no introduction. He is without doubt one of the wisest and most revered stars of India’s tech and startup ecosystem. He’s the man behind Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the body that issues Aadhaar numbers; and the co-founder and chairman of one of India’s most fabled tech companies, Infosys, where he also served as CEO. He’s also the co-chair of the G20 Task Force on Digital Public Infrastructure for Economic Transformation, Financial Inclusion and Development this year.

Speaking at an event in New Delhi on Saturday, Nilekani spoke about how technology has helped create a digital public infrastructure (DPI) in India for the delivery of critical services to citizens, ranging from identity and financial inclusion to digital education, healthcare, and more.

The event was organised by EkStep Foundation (where Nilekani is co-founder) to deliberate and discuss on how India’s large population can be enabled and empowered.

While the digital foundation has been laid and work continues on the digital capital front, it’s time to focus on the human capital of India, he said, sharing a ‘unique’ equation, ‘digital capital + human capital = people + advantage’. Nilekani added that a people-centric, technology-led model that is collaborative, equitable, innovation-friendly and democratises opportunity at population scale is the need of the hour and what EkStep is working towards.

“Harnessing talent and getting people ready is a challenge we must focus on,” he said, adding that a young country like India has great potential. According to the United Nations Population Fund’s projections, India will continue to have one of the youngest populations in the world till 2030.

Nilekani was also of the opinion that what India achieved in a span of nine years in banking, would have taken 47 years had it not been for the digital public infrastructure the country built. “We created Aadhaar 14 years back, which led to Know Your Customer (KYC), which led to financial inclusion…and led to massive mobile adoption via (Reliance) Jio.”

According to a recent IMF paper, between 2013 and March 2021, the Indian government saved up to 1.1% of GDP expenditure thanks to the advanced DPI. The Indian ecosystem has also witnessed a sharp increase in the use of digital infrastructure, with a 200% increase in rural internet subscriptions against 158% in urban India between 2015 and 2021, as per government data.

Rohini Nilekani, Co-founder, EkStep Foundation, said while her husband (Nandan Nilekani) may be focused on tech and numbers, tech, to her, although exciting, is just an enabler, not the leader. “As far as India’s ‘techade’ is concerned I see tech as an aid,” she said.

The main thing to solve for was “How do we create a unified system but not a uniform system in whatever we do so so that whatever scale we achieve is (rooted in) diversity, not a cookie-cutter scheme.”

EkStep on Saturday also launched Network for Education Skilling Transaction (ONEST), an Open Network for Digital Commerce (ONDC)- like platform for education. While ONDC brings together sellers across digital markets on one platform, the focus of ONEST is to create a network that enables “lifelong learning and livelihoods''. 

“A young India has tremendous potential, and open networks like ONEST will be pivotal to realise that potential," Nilekani said. The platform also lets one pledge money and the first transactions happened at the event itself, with people in the audience participating to supercharge the education and skilling journey for various causes. 

“This can be the UPI for education,” said Gaurav Gupta, Chief Growth Officer, EkStep Foundation. 

Saturday’s event was attended by prominent leaders, technocrats, and bureaucrats such as Adil Zainulbhai, Thampy Koshi, Ashish Dhawan, Debjani Ghosh, and Anjali Bansal, among others.

At the gathering, some of the sharpest minds across policy, bureaucracy, philanthropy, and business discussed the possibilities of transforming India by ushering in a DPI revolution across the three pillars of the economy - Samaaj (civil society), Sarkar (government), and Bazaar (business).

The event featured three tracks - PeoplePlus Lifelong Learning, PeoplePlus AI for Societal Change, and PeoplePlus Open Networks.

Lifelong Learning focused on harnessing the power of DPI to enrich the learning experiences in FLN (Foundation Literacy and Numeracy), vocational, and skilling sectors. The PeoplePlus AI for Societal Change deliberated on how AI can bring about societal changes by providing language as a bridge, turbocharging human capability, amplifying visibility and decision-making, and creating new possibilities and professions. The PeoplePlus Networks highlighted the importance of open networks for open opportunities in education and skilling to enable discoverability, accessibility, and inclusivity.

The tracks focused on personas of students, teachers, parents, officials, farmers, healthcare and blue-collar workers, and showcased experiences and examples of how people-centric transformation can help India gain the ‘people + advantage’ by leveraging DPI.

EkStep Foundation, a philanthropic, not-for-profit organisation, was started by Nandan Nilekani, Rohini Nilekani and Shankar Maruwada in 2015. Its founders and leaders have been instrumental in building digital frameworks such as identity verification, benefit transfers, financial inclusion, and human capability enhancement.

Edited by Teja Lele