By Aditya Dev Sood
Nilekani’s interview on CNN-IBN makes for fascinating viewing. I haven’t found a transcript online, so I’ve had to rely on my own notes for the comments below.
Nilekani thinks and talks in terms of systems. He specifically says that he’s taken a ‘systems approach’ to thinking about failures in India’s Public Distribution System (PDS): “The way you look for corruption is through analytic tools. You look for suspicious behavior the way credit card companies do. Why would you use a nineteenth century approach in today’s day and age?” he asks.
Nilekani talks about the top-line goals of the UID initiative in terms of a series of new use cases that would now become available to PDS beneficiaries: “We need to see that we give people an identity so that they are not denied something because they have come from the village to the city. We need to see that the PDS is portable from one distribution center to the other so if there is a problem in one place the person is not denied benefits. We need to ensure that people have a more hassle-free relationship with the state.” This is the kind of approach many service, software and systems designers would also take in trying to resolve the fundamental challenges of citizen-state interactions.
But Nilekani’s technocratic impulses are also powerfully on display in this interview: “Why do we have this agitation when a Lokpal bill is already before the standing committee of parliament?” he asks. We must assume he is being disingenuous, for he must surely know the answer. The janlokpal movement is against big-ticket corruption and for probity in public life in particular, even though its mass support comes from individuals who have been victims of the kind of citizen-extortion that UID might potentially curb.
To understand the power and source of the Jan Lok Pal movements takes more empathy, curiousity, engagement with everyday people than most systems-thinkers are capable of. True, successful innovation in the public sphere will require not only Nilekani’s kind of systems-thinking, but also the kind of genuine and engaged empathy with people that Team Anna has shown.
* The views presented here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Center for Knowledge Societies