Since our book club’s discussion of Aravind Adiga’s “The White Tiger” in early June, references to contemporary India keep popping up in my random readings.
Just today I was thumbing through a stack of unread New Yorker magazines, and I came across Ian Parker’s essay from the October 3, 2011 issue entitled “The I. D. Man: Can a software mogul’s epic project help India’s poor?”
Parker’s “I.D.” man is software billionaire, Nandan Nilekani, the fifty-seven year-old creator of Infosys, a custom software company that produces systems to manage inventories and payrolls for clients such as Amazon, Apple, Ford, and Bank of America. Balram Halwai, the effusively colorful narrator of “The White Tiger” would surely call Nandan Nilekani an “entrepreneur.” The Indian company Nikelani created in 1981 is now worth $30 billion dollars. Nikelani retired from the company in 2009, still owning 1.45% of Infosys, making him currently worth about a half billion dollars.
Both Balram Halwai and Nandan Nilekani make Bangalore, India their homes. Ian Parker describes Bangalore’s winter weather as “Californian,” to help describe its appeal. Nilekani describes Bangalore as “laidback.” All three men recognize the city of Bangalore as India’s technology capital. It’s no wonder why author Adiga Adinga selected Bangalore as a modern representation of India’s technological revolution.
Adiga wanted readers of “The White Tiger” to know as much as they could about India’s complex past and present social history, and so he used seven letters written by Balram Halwai to the fictitious Premier of China, Wen Jiabao, to help explain India’s culture. Most of India’s 1.2 billion people, we’re told, are the working poor, living a hand-to-mouth existence in teeming filthy cities or in landscapes devoid of clean water, sewage systems, and other basic services one might expect to find in a contemporary culture. India’s political system is corrupt; educational systems are corrupt; social service systems—even hospitals—are filled with corruption.
Throughout his essay, Parker supports all of Adiga’s novel’s contentions (without referencing the prize-winning author) with examples such as these:
*Just 33 million Indians out of 1.2 billion pay any income tax.
*Bureaucrats “steal from welfare funds or harass citizens for bribes.”
*Nandan Nilekani’s company, Infosys, was put at risk early in its existence because of Nilekani’s “refusal to bribe the Bangalore telephone department.”
*India is “overdue” for adopting “good governance.”
*Hundreds of millions of Indians are ciphers because there is no national social security system.
Like Balram, Nandan turned to writing to explain his country’s shortcomings, and in 2008 he published “Imagining India,” his personal reflections on, among other things, India’s “education, inequality, urban infrastructure” and his speculations about how his home country, because of its surge of an educated, youthful population could now better face opportunities to improve India’s governance.
One observer praised Nilekani’s writing brilliance this way: “He [Nilekani] has a finer and more intuitive understanding of the dynamics of caste, of religion, of governance, the functioning of political parties, than the most highly skilled sociologists and historians.”
A fundamental point in Nilekani’s book was making a case for creating an Indian identification system, a national biometric database that would include every citizen’s name, fingerprints, photo and iris scan, as well as other personal data. In so doing, India’s disenfranchised could be part of a system that would help ensure a better delivery system for the country’s basic, promised citizen services, which heretofore have been mired in a deliberate, debilitating, and dehumanizing culture of cronyism and corruption.
Nilekani’s book began being seen as a human manifesto. He promoted the book throughout India and travelled to the United States gain a wider audience. He even appeared on “The Daily Show,” with Jon Stewart. When Nilekani returned to India, he was offered an opportunity to join the Manmohan Singh government to create a national agency to carry out his dream of implementing an I.D. program for all Indian citizens.
The Indian government could see the benefits to a national I.D. system: economic growth because of increased taxes, an expansion of a more effective Indian welfare state, and a way to begin to effectively curb rampant corruption.
Nilekani agreed to take the government position for five years. His task is immense. He is not without his share of critics: What does India do about its illegal Pakistani population? Will “Big Brother” government become more intrusive in people’s lives? What do you do with people who don’t want to be identified?
The answer to these questions, and so many others, would only come from an “entrepreneurial approach” to problem solving, as Nilekani’s described it, an approach Balram Halwai would most certainly approve of even if he is one of those Bangalore residents who would prefer to remain anonymous because of his criminal past.
What does Nilekani say to citizens as he travels throughout India, promoting his national identification program?
“If you don’t have any form of identity, if you don’t have any acknowledgment of your fundamental existence, then you’re essentially shut out of the system. You become a nonperson.”
Unlike Balram Halwai, Nilekani has offered a specific plan to help modernize India. By 2014, when he leaves office, we’ll know more about how his experimental program is working. Soon, every Indian citizen may be able to show anyone who doubts his or her true existence an identification card that, as Ian Parker describes it in his New Yorker essay’s final sentence, says, “Look, this is who I am.”