Top positive review
The intersection of Technology, Leadership and Society that made Aadhar happen.A captivating account
25 November 2018
Technology work with Indian Government is hard. Harder still, when private and public institutions have to work together. The hardest part is when it involves each of the 1 billion citizens as an end user. The Aadhar project faced all these levels of hardships. The book, 'The Aadhar Effect' seeks to capture this hard, complicated and multi-faceted journey to consolidate and de-duplicate the Indian digital identity.
Somewhere in the book, the authors mention that the project had many aspects of a thriller with twists and turns, conflicting forces, drama etc. Well, the book itself seems to be that! Particularly the sections on privacy, with RTI activists .vs. Privacy activists, are page turners. The book is beautifully written. At many points, when I was reading a section, I had some thoughts (ex: about fortune at the bottom of the pyramid) and as I progressed, I discovered they were exactly covered in the book. That shows a natural flow that evokes reading interest.
The book goes beyond Aadhar itself and discusses enabling digital platforms and digital services that are or could be built over Aadhar. There is a small amount of noticeable (though well-deserved) Nandan praise for his leadership abilities, his ability to conceive the larger aspects of the project and put a diverse team together. To be fair, in the chapter 'Who's afraid of Aadhar?', the book lists a collection of 50 common problems and objections to Aadhar. Nowhere else can you find such a comprehensive counter-view in one place.
At some places, the authors tend to delve on the 'larger picture', philosophically or strategically, which may be viewed as a stretch. Like, towards the end, they portray Aadhar like it's some foreign relations enabler for its learning potential for implementing large digital projects.
The angle on Aadhar being, an important, but only one of the many Lego blocks is a significant theme of the book. In the same lines, the book dwells upon future possibilities and great potential of Aadhar, rather than on how it has been useful in the development arena, the exceptions being the Direct Bank Transfer scheme and payment systems. It dwells on the architectural beauty of having a unique identity and how it can be a true transformation tool if you want to use it for development and empowerment and how the central payments infrastructure is already making it possible.
The book has a good share of the stories of getting work done. For example, with Nandan's backing by the PMO, his access to PM worried the bureaucrats,. The authors mention it as: 'It's not that he would call. It's that he *could* call'. The book is of full of such super-interesting tidbits and also many anecdotes about the dynamics between Nandan Nilekani, his colleagues and various government departments.
As you write a book review, you realize that you are not writing a review of the book, but a review of the Aadhar project itself! Thats a good thing, it means the book has achieved its goal, of pushing you to think about the project, its impact, potential and ramifications.
If you seriously think about the impact of technology in Samaj and Sarkar, if you tend to have an 'integration' view of all things tech and the power of digital platforms to transform landscapes, this book is a great read. If you have been in situations, where you have to demonstrate extraordinary leadership to bring a diverse team together to push towards a visionary goal, you must pick up this book. You will understand both, how hard it is do good work in India and how hard it isn't, i.e. if you have the commitment, the right team and undaunted persistence.
It may be waiting for you at the airport, at a book fair, at a neighbourhood store, or in Amazon. It might pick you up. Like they say, when it comes to good books, you don't choose them, they choose you.