India must replicate the Aadhaar model — built to enroll over a million people a day — to create a massive vaccination programme that can cover 3-5 million people daily, says Nandan Nilekani, the architect of the unique identification programme. In a wide-ranging interview with ET, Nilekani says it is “supercritical” that India uses its “best digital infrastructure” to speedily inoculate its population. The Infosys chairman said the country stands to gain amid the economic disruption wrought by Covid-19, with the world looking for prowess in manufacturing. Edited excerpts.
The world over, countries are turning their gaze inwards. What does this mean for the Indian economy?
India has a significant opportunity because of the change in the relationship between the US and China, which had built a huge manufacturing capability over the past 20 years. Now, India has a great opportunity to emerge as a safe alternative base for global manufacturing. India is also a big market. We just have to ensure that infrastructure pipes work. I am confident that manufacturing in India will take off, both because of the internal market and geopolitical (changes).
How do you view the trajectory of the pandemic?
In the next few months, we have to redouble our efforts. First of all, (continuing) behavioural changes, like wearing masks, washing hands, keeping a physical distance of 6 feet and so on, avoiding crowds. We need to continue testing, with contact-tracing and quarantining so (that Covid-19) doesn’t flare up. We are fortunate that India is the vaccine capital of the world. By January, you should see at least a couple of vaccines in the market. We have amazing firms such as Serum Institute that can make a billion vaccines or more, and six to seven (other) such companies doing domestic research or licensing.
These companies will be able to make 100 million vaccines a month, and even if some of that is used for other countries, we will have a lot more choices. Combined with the fact that we have 1.25 billion people who have a unique Aadhaar identity, we can create a massive vaccination programme. We must ensure that everybody gets a digital certificate with the date of vaccination, name of the vaccine and through which vendor and at what location.
We can use the Aadhaar model. It was built to enroll 1.5 million people a day. We can easily think of building a vaccination system that vaccinates 3-5 million people a day. If we get to 50-60% vaccination, we’ll reach vaccine-induced herd immunity. That would be the longer-term solution, I mean 4-5 months from now.
So, will the economic downturn be behind us by next financial year?
The big ‘if’ is that we implement it the way I just described. We must have vaccination agencies certified and approved by the government with trained people. If it is designed well, I don’t see why we can’t create a system to vaccinate 3-10 million people a day. Then, it’s a matter of a few months before we get this right. Every month that we lose on vaccination will further impact the economy. Getting the population vaccinated with the best possible vaccine in the shortest possible time with the best digital infrastructure is supercritical.
It’s about execution…
Somebody has to sit down and build this stuff.
Are we seeing the end of globalisation as we’ve known it in the past two decades?
There is no doubt. If you look back, the starting year will be 1991, when the Berlin Wall fell (marking) end of the Cold War era and India liberalised its economy. Then China joined the WTO in 1999, and the dominant mood was globalisation and most countries endorsed it. So, from 1991 to 2016, we had a period of great global growth led by the rise of the internet-enabled economy and containerisation, which dramatically reduced the cost of shipping goods. But the western middle class felt it had not benefited from globalisation, leading to a political response. Specifically, on US-China, there was a period of great bonhomie, but now that has changed quite dramatically.
Is this an opportune time for India to secure its digital economy and push for data localisation?
I don’t think we can do what China has done in terms of creating the great firewall. We should be an open economy and at the same time we need to create digital public goods. India has Aadhaar, Unified Payments Interface (UPI), account aggregator framework which will democratise lending, the Prime Minister has announced the digital health mission which will create a modern infrastructure for health records, GST is the most advanced indirect tax system in the world. We have a nationwide RFID tag system for smooth movement of trucks and cars, and the Supreme Court is applying AI, using modern techniques of neural machine translation to convert all its judgements in multiple languages. One part of securing our digital economy is creating these kinds of digital public goods. The other (is that) we should have a fairly open economy that will allow competition from domestic as well as international players.
Reliance Industries has mopped up mega funding during pandemic. What ripple effect will this have?
In a difficult time, it has confirmed faith in India’s future. That a single company has managed to raise billions of dollars is a vote of confidence in India’s economy. I have to commend Mukeshbhai (Ambani) and his colleagues for raising capital in very difficult times. It also validates that the digital economy is the future of India with both large companies such as Reliance and smaller startups. We will see a lot of competition in ecommerce and smartphone prices falling. It’s not a winner-takes-all market (but one where) multiple players matter and niche players matter.
You think the future for India will be where more small players also compete?
I am of the firm belief that it’s not about a few companies creating millions of jobs, but millions of companies creating a few jobs each — that’s what I see as the future.
How do you view the impact of National Education Policy’s focus on instruction in mother tongue?
English will continue to be aspirational, and a big reason for private schools (to exist) is that they teach English. Also, the notion that all the people in Karnataka speak Kannada and all the people in Maharashtra speak Marathi is not true. In Maharashtra, you have eight languages. You will also see massive internal migration — from east to west and north to south — leading to mingling of languages. Kids in Kerala speak Oriya. That’s why technology is very useful. With neural machine translation, you can create real-time translation. Teachers can be speaking in Malayalam, and children will receive it in Bengali. We have to unlock our minds and make it so fungible and so fluid that to learn in any language is not an issue.
Turning to Infosys, have you achieved what you set out to do three years ago?
It’s a journey. I am satisfied. We have complete board stability, management stability and excellent leadership. Salil Parekh’s business performance has been the best in the industry. Infosys is regaining its bellwether status. But a lot needs to happen too. The industry is in a state of great transition with cloud and AI. So successfully transitioning that would be the goal for the next few years.
Trump or Biden in November?
They can’t say, how can I say?
How do you stay positive in a pandemic?
I have reconciled myself to being house-bound till June of 2021. It might happen earlier… I am putting a lot of time into fitness, going for walks twice a day. Set some goals, don’t worry about this, and enjoy what’s happening. My wife says I’m an incurable optimist. But when you die, whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist, the optimist has had more fun.