Pinnacle Conference 2014 – IIM Alumni

Every year, IIM Americas, the alumni organization for the 13 Indian Institutes of Management, holds an annual conference.  My husband Ambi and I generally try to go. (We were classmates; he’s an alum too.)

Ashima Jain at Pinnacle 2014The organization’s come a long way since its founding less than ten years ago, as President Ashima Jain pointed out in her address, “Exciting Times.”  The name has been changed from IIM USA to IIM Americas to recognize our Toronto chapter. We’ve 13 chapters in America, and ties to overseas alumni organizations – including one in Singapore that I remember fondly. Ashima deserves a lot of the credit – despite working full time for Price Waterhouse Coopers, her energy and vision have made this organization flourish.

Exciting times for IIM AmericasUnlike the institutes themselves, whose value comes in part from their exclusiveness, IIM Americas tries to be inclusive. India now has 13 IIMs – up from three when I graduated! Most IIM alumni organizations tend to be institute-specific, and remain small.  Even IIM Kolkata, the oldest of these institutes, has a small graduating class; and the newest ones have very few alumni, because they’re new. Having a pan-IIM alumni association made all the difference – it now has 7,500 alumni as members, from all of the IIMs, old and new.

At Pinnacle, we missed the breakfast meeting on mergers and acquisitions – too early and too far for me, particularly since my interest in the topic is largely academic. The conference was at the Googleplex in Mountain View, a good hour’s drive from home.


Ro Khanna, who’s running for Congress in California’s 17th Congressional District, spoke about the need for an honest and nuanced conversation about jobs and the global economy. People don’t want jobs going overseas, but also want the lower prices from “Made in China.” A US-made smart phone, for instance, would cost around $2300. Also, technological change is a much larger reason for job loss on globalization, displacing low- and middle-skilled workers.

Attending a last-minute meeting in New York, Radha Ramaswami Basu, CEO of iMerit Technologies, gave her talk by video-conference. She was in India with Hewlett Packard years ago, and we were interested to know what she’s working on now. After her 20-year career at Hewlett Packard, she and her husband started a social enterprise called Anudip Foundation to train impoverished young men and women in Kolkata, India, in information technology and micro-entrepreneurship. Then she started iMerit to sell remote IT service to US companies, thus providing jobs to Anudip graduates.


Two interesting panel discussions focused on data privacy and on entrepreneurship.

Who has our data, and does it matter? Panelists Ankit Jain, (formerly of Google and founder of Quettra Inc),  Rachna Choudhry, (founder of, a start-up that helps individuals locate and understand bills before Congress), Lil Mohan, (entrepreneur and technologist); and Ro Khanna all agreed that large web companies like Google, Facebook and Yahoo collected huge amounts of information on everyone who used the internet. After the Snowden revelations, we all know the US government also does. But: so what?

There were two interesting and opposed viewpoints. It’s companies gathering data that’s the real problem; they don’t use it for the common good but for marketing, while the government would generally use it to make us safer Vs:  It’s legitimate for companies to gather data about their clients as they’ve always done; but the size and power of the government that makes possible misuse of data both tempting and downright dangerous.

“People are willing to sacrifice data privacy for security,” commented the person sitting beside me.

But my experience is that it doesn’t even take that. People are willing to sacrifice data privacy for convenience. Everyone on the panel favored more transparency about what data was being collected, by whom, and how it was being used. But even if all that information were available, I suspect most people won’t bother checking.

What makes an entrepreneur succeed? Dr Ram Nidumolu (entrepreneur, author and academic), Mehul Nariyawala, (“Serial entrepreneur” and now at Google after his company got acquired), and Doc Vaidyanathan, (VP at CA Technologies) talked about what qualities an entrepreneur needs. A willingness to take risk is the most important, and one suggestion was to start something early before you’re embedded in a cushy job, with a family and a mortgage. Flexibility was essential, because no plan survived contact with reality. Determination, because ventures can and do fail; the key is to see it as a learning experience. (“Ventures fail, entrepreneurs do not.”) And luck, of course.

One of the pleasures of these gatherings is meeting old friends. I ran into S. Vittal, my IIM/A classmate who I hadn’t seen since we left the institute. Vittal, Ambi and I were among the most senior alums present — though there was one alumnus who had us beat by nearly a decade!

Outdoor lunch area at Googleplex




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Product “Improvement”

This is not a grumble about the ever-growing complications of home electronics devices, where the key to success appears to be in ignoring 90% of the buttons. Nor is it about the annoyances of continual software upgrades that leave a trail of incompatibilities in their wake. Or about high-tech running shoes that have replaced the then-ubiquitous simple plimsolls that were part of our school uniform.

old sauce panThis is about a saucepan.

This saucepan, in particular, a simple 11″ T-fal  with a glass lid. It seemed to fit right in with our cooking styles, and in the 2 or 3 years we’d owned it, we had used it again and again and again.  You can’t see it in this photograph, but the Teflon coating had started to wear out and look gray and patchy.

new saucepanIt was time for a new saucepan. We went back to the same store, and were delighted to find the same T-fal saucepan in the same size at more or less the same price, too. So we brought it, broke it out of the packing, tempered it and started cooking.

Something was wrong. While the old saucepan had sat stolidly on the stove while I stirred its contents, this one moved on the stove like skates on ice. I had to hold the handle when I wanted to stir it.

I couldn’t figure out what it was. The new pan was identical to the old one. I’m not much of a cook, and I figured maybe there was something I was doing wrong.  But the next day, my husband used it and found the same thing.

It wasn’t me, he pointed out. He waved the pan at me, upside down. This is what the bottom of the New Pan looked like.

bottom of new saucepanRather elegant and dramatic in its design, I thought. It wouldn’t look like that after a month or two, but right now it was a handsome thing.

Nope, he said. Those black rings aren’t paint or enamel. They’re Teflon. [Edited to add: Maybe they actually are enamel, but very slick enamel.]

Oh. But the previous pan was identical, right?

bottom of old saucepanNot quite It had the concentric rings, but no Teflon on the outer ones. The Teflon on the inner circles didn’t matter. The way our stove was designed, it was the outer part of the pan that rested on the burner.

So that explained it. What we couldn’t understand was, Why? His theory is that someone dropped one operation in its manufacture – scraping off the Teflon from the outer rings. Mine is that someone looked at the new design, as I did, and said That looks so good! And didn’t test it, because after all it’s a minor difference.

So now for a decision: Return the pan?  Or scrape off the Teflon, either deliberately or as time wears on and we keep cooking.

I think I’ll keep the pan, hold the handle when I stir, and be pleased that at least it’s not a computer upgraded to futility!

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No More Polio in India

Possibly the most hopeful piece of news I’ve seen out of India today is that poliomyelitis may be a thing of the past there. They’ve had no cases for three years.

polio vaccine babyThis is excellent. When I was a child, the polio vaccine was given as an injection. I remember being taken for these shots, and didn’t quite get why my otherwise indulgent Mum and Dad were so adamant about immunizations.

Years later, I fully understand. My parents knew what these diseases did, they’d seen the effects. They’d lost relatives to typhoid and cholera. They’d seen kids die. They were grateful that the vaccines had become available.

Years before I was born, one of my my older cousins got polio. She survived, but her mother believed it spoiled her life. It left her then with a bad limp; and now, in her old age, with very limited mobility.

A friend of ours seemed to have overcome the effects of childhood polio. Her barely noticeable limp didn’t stand in the way of an exciting career and a lovely family. But then post-polio syndrome came roaring in, and again, it limits her mobility.

Polio was so widespread that it wasn’t unusual to see children in calipers to help them walk. It was a sight as familiar as crutches in my (US) college cafeteria, where skiing or football accidents usually hit some percentage of the healthy young population at any time. (This is one reason why I’m skeptical when parents decide not to immunize their kids. They haven’t seen the non -vaccinated world.)

And yet, by the time I was in school, no one I knew actually got polio. They’d been vaccinated.

It’s wonderful that this is now true in a population that’s three times the size it was then – and in villages as well as in cities.

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Corruption Perceptions

Transparency International‘s (TI) anually updated Corruption Perceptions Index covers 180 countries, give or take a few. In 2012, it ranked 176 countries. In the last few years, I’ve been following its scoring for India, and more particularly, whether perceived corruption has been increasing or decreasing. (Those posts are HERE and HERE.)

corruption perceptions map 2012

scale for corruption perceptions mapTI doesn’t measure corruption directly; instead, it uses surveys of various groups to get their perception of corruption in that country. From this, it derives a score (earlier, on a 0-10 scale, but from 2012 that’s been converted to a 0-100 scale, and higher is better). The score is then used to determine the country’s rank.

The map above, taken from TI’s website, shows the score by country on a color scale with yellow as the least and dark red as the most corrupt countries. (On their website, it’s interactive, and you can get each country’s score and rank. Click on the map above to go to TI’s interactive one.)

The scores actually tend to be quite stable over time. TI has results going back many years; I pulled scores for four countries back to the year 2000, compiled them, and graphed them. (I only found Myanmar from 2003 onward.)

Corruption perceptions comparisonBesides India, I looked at China because it’s the country most often used in such comparisons. It’s consistently scored higher than India – but not by much. On the map, both countries show as the same shade of medium red.  Myanmar – which is the country of my current project – is near the bottom of the range. Corruption perceptions there are dire. And the US – though not the top of the range by any means (that honor goes to Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, which each scored 90 points) – is a standard by virtue of its dominance in the world economy.

In general, the rankings are not as consistent as the scores.  Since the number of countries covered changed from year to year, I’ve normalized them on a scale of 0-100. (The actual rankings, which run from 1 to 174 in 2012, are available on TI’s website.) So here’s the graph of the normalized ranks. I inverted the axis this time to show the rankings visually. Again, I haven’t graphed the real winners: Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, which tied for first place, or Sweden and Singapore, which followed.

corruption perception scores comparison INDIA had been on a declining trend since 2008, with both scores and rank falling. It managed to reverse that in 2012. Its score ticked upward from 31 in 2011 to 36 in 2012, but it didn’t improve its rank; other countries, on the average, improved their scores more than India did. So India’s rank fell to 53, slightly below average.

India corruption perceptions time seriesCHINA, on the other hand, has been consistently above average in its ranking since 2004, as corruption perceptions have gradually improved since a low of 32 in 2005.

china corruption perceptions time seriesMYANMAR has a long way to go. Perceptions of corruption there are very bad indeed; its score of 15 gives it a rank of 98. It’s lumped with countries like Sudan and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Only North Korea, Afghanistan, and Somalia are worse (they have scores of 8, which would have given them a normalized rank of 99).

Myanmar corruption perceptions time seriesHow about the USA? It’s been pretty stable from 2004, not quite in the top 10% of the countries in terms of normalized rankings,  but close. Perhaps it could emulate its neighbor Canada, which had a score of 84 – and a normalized ranking in the top 5% of countries.

USA corruption perceptions time series

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Airtel Me No More Lies

I’m staying in a family apartment in Bangalore, where we use Airtel for everything – our landline, our phone instrument, the Broadband connection.


The first sign of trouble was an email from Airtel, warning us we’d blown through the monthly gigabyte download limit on our internet plan in 4 days. This wasn’t surprising. The internet’s used very sparingly here, so we’re on a low plan. But I’m a very heavy net-user, and – this was the US Election night. “If you have any queries, please feel free to contact us at 121 from your airtel fixedline,” it ended.

It would be nice to know just how much this 24/7 connectivity was going to cost me, so I called them. And found myself in possibly the worst-designed phone menu in the known universe.

It started off well, wishing me a warm welcome, and asking me to press 1 for English and 2 for Hindi. It went downhill fast. It asked me to press more buttons, but if I didn’t press at just the right time, it said it wasn’t a valid response and dumped me out. Eventually, on about the fifth try, I got to the point where it asked for my ten-digit User ID. Except, my user ID – according to the email – wasn’t ten digits. It was 11 digits, an underscore, and two lower-case letters, forcing me to try various permutations.

Each time, if I didn’t enter it at just the right moment, it would cut out. More irritatingly, it would accept the number, ask me to verify it, then say it was not a correct number, and gleefully announce “Oops! That was your last try. Goodbye!” Pressing 0 continuously didn’t yield an operator. A live chat line promised in the original bill reached a dead address. I never did manage to reach anyone, and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised if this month’s internet bill looks like the national debt.

Thanks, Airtel.


And that’s not all. In parallel, I was trying to acquire a local cellphone. I’ve done this before, seamlessly; I wrote about that here: A US Cellphone in India.

Expecting something similar,  I stopped in at the local mobile phone outlet and bought a phone (my old one had died) and an Airtel SIM card. They needed a proof of identity, for which I gave them a copy of my passport, and a photograph. No problem, I always carry a sheaf of passport-size photos. They assured me it would be activated the same night.

It wasn’t.

I went back the next day. Oh, they said, the photo you gave us was black and white. They need a color photo. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. So they filled in a new form and attached a color photo. It would be activated, they said, the next day by 11 a.m.

It wasn’t.

I went back that evening and complained. It’s a problem, the man said, but it will be activated tomorrow by 1 p.m., 100% positive.

It wasn’t.

I called them. In half an hour, they assured me. Definite. One hour later…

It wasn’t.

I called them again. “We’ll call you back in ten minutes,” they said.

That was an hour ago. My phone still looks like the picture above.

Thanks, Airtel.


On the cellphone:   I went back to the shop. They gave me an “emergency Vodafone SIM card” which is indeed live. My Airtel card, they assured me, would get activated. Eventually.

On the Internet: An Airtel screen showed up on my machine, and I was able to buy data downloads at Rs 50/ hour for a speed of 1 mbbps.

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My New Project: “Business in Burma/ Myanmar”

As I mentioned in my recent post, I’m just back from Myanmar and Singapore. I’m working on a book on doing business in Burma.


It’s an exciting new market, having been essentially closed to Western firms since the early 1990s, when political repression drew sanctions from the US, the UK, and a bunch of other countries. Now, with political liberalization, sanctions are being lifted or suspended, and companies are eager to go in.

I’d written about Burma for my clients back in the 1980s, when there were the first glimmerings of what proved to be a false dawn. Those days, I was at Business International, the company later acquired by and merged into The Economist. Burma was part of my South Asia responsibilities. (These days, it’s included with South East Asia, and looks more to Thailand as a model; back then, we included it with India and Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.)


Besides the business connection, I have a personal one: My mother grew up in Burma in the British era. Her father was a doctor in Rangoon. Then came World War II, and the family moved to India as Japan bombed the city. For her, it was always the golden land of wonderful people and fond childhood memories, and my own childhood was full of her stories. When I went there for the first time in the early 1980s, I found her descriptions precise enough that I could locate the house they’d lived in, between the Zoo and a graveyard that her brothers visited at night on a dare…

So I was fascinated by the country on multiple levels, and very pleased to visit it again and see what had changed meanwhile. A lot and a little, I’d say. I think if my mother was around to visit it now, she’d still have known the place and found it familiar. In another ten years, that may not be true. There’s been a building boom, and another is in the offing.


I’m hoping to have the book out by year-end or so.

Meanwhile,  IMA Asia published my preliminary draft for private circulation to their clients.

After visiting Myanmar, I went to Singapore and made a presentation to around 80 of IMA Asia’s clients. It was really interesting – the companies present represented a very broad range of industries and services. Shipping and perfumery, consulting and telecoms, food and human resource management.

Some companies are already jumping in. Both Coke and Pepsi are in, Western Union is working out an arrangement with a local bank, many airlines are flying to Yangon (Rangoon) again. Others are more wary, fearing the new liberalization may not prove durable.

A few Indian companies already operate there – Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, Ranbaxy, Essar. India imposed no sanctions, so they were not forced out. Likewise, China didn’t sanction Myanmar and is a major investor and trade partner.

Still, the sanctions limited Myanmar’s ability to engage with the world, and with the changes that have occurred and others that are anticipated, new opportunities are likely to open up.

(By the way: Myanmar or Burma? Like India, Burma decided to change many of its place names back to their pre-British versions. But in this case, it became a political issue, because the revised names became associated with the military dictatorship. The US still calls the country Burma; the UN calls it Myanmar. I use both. I think it’s rather nice for a country to have multiple names. Maybe I’m biased, coming from Bharat that is India.)

Cover of IMA Asia report: Myanmar Opportunities by Rupa Bose

IMA Asia report: Myanmar Opportunities by Rupa Bose

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Was I Chatting with a Bank of America Robot?

I’m just back from a trip to Burma / Myanmar and Singapore, of which more in subsequent posts. But it left me with some stuff to catch up on, including a payment to our accountant. It should have taken me about 5 minutes with online banking. Instead, I found their details deleted from my account. So I tried to re-add the recipient, but it didn’t work.

There was a handy-dandy chat link next to the error message, so I opened the Chat. I got a prompt response, and a chat that was so entirely meaningless that I suspect it might not pass the Turing Test.

You be the judge (the “you” in the transcript below is of course me):


Thank you for choosing Bank of America. You are now being connected to a Chat Specialist. For security purposes, please remember to close your chat window when completed.

Angelica: Hello! Thank you for being a valued Bank of America customer. My name is Angelica. May I have your complete name?
You: Rupa Bose. Hi, Angelica, I have a problem. I’ve been paying our tax accountant  quarterly for some years now. Today I found [the accountant] was missing from my list, and when I tried to re-add  I could not.
Angelica: Hello Rupa!
You: Hello Angelica! So can you fix the problem?
Angelica: I regret to hear that you were having issues with adding a recipient for your transfers.
Angelica: Let me check this for you.
You: Can you also find out why [the accountant] was suddenly missing after years of glitch-free transfers?
Angelica: I apologize for the delay. I’ll be with you shortly.
Angelica: I do apologize for this inconvenience. However, you can do the adding a recipient for transfers in your online banking page as there are times that the system would have delete the recipients in the list and you just have to do the adding of the recipient process again.
You: Angelica, that is not an answer. What you said is that (1) The system for some unknown reason randomly deletes recipients. (2) It’s my problem, I have to re-add the recipient.
You: I would like to point out that (1) It did not delete *all* the recipients. (2) It would not allow me to re-add [the accountant].
You: An apology is not an explanation or a solution.
Angelica: Thank you for waiting. I’ll be with you in just a moment.
Angelica: I’m sorry for this matter. As I totally understand your point and situation. However, as there would be some additional technical steps involved to help solve this issue instead. That being said, I would need to refer you to our online banking specialists over the phone to be able to look into the best solution.
Angelica: Are you still with me? Please respond so I can leave this chat window open  to answer any questions for you.
You: I think we may as well close this window. It is not helping to solve my problem. Bye.
Angelica: Let me know if there is anything else I can assist you with.
You: Clearly nothing. Thanks anyway.
Angelica: Thank you for choosing Bank of America’s Chat Service! We appreciate and value your business.  Have a wonderful day!


We’re sending our accountant an old-fashioned check for now.  I hope the “online banking specialists” will be better trained than poor “Angelica” at handling this, whether she’s silicon or carbon based.

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Surprise Bhangra at San Francisco’s City Hall

Visitors to India often comment on the serendipitous surprises they encounter: an elephant in traffic, a roadside celebration with dancing and music, a clever gymnastics performance during a traffic jam. Well, recently San Francisco held its own.

I’d gone to City Hall for a meeting. For those unfamiliar with it, San Francisco’s City Hall is a beautiful beaux art domed building; inside, there’s a dramatic marble staircase beneath a three-story rotunda.

It’s where marriages are registered, and legal weddings performed. Often the young couple honor the occasion by dressing up themselves, so there’s a certain festive atmosphere to what is essentially a bureaucratic office building. There’ll almost always be a bride or two floating around in fairy-tale white gowns, often accompanied by cute kids all dressed up too.

But Friday last, it was more than happy brides. I entered the building to the sound of a tabla, looked around, and on the steps at the first landing saw a musician sitting at his instrument, drumming away.

I stood around, intrigued. The tabla stopped, and gave way to the energetic beat of a dholak. And half a dozen young women in pink and green salwar-kameez inspired costumes came bounding out to perform a bhangra.

All the bhangras I’ve seen before this were performed by men. It’s an exuberant and energetic dance, originating in the Punjab. These women definitely captured the spirit of the thing, even if they didn’t make some of the acrobatic moves I’ve seen from bhangra performers in India. The pace and energy was awesome.

(Later, while doing some research for this post, I discovered that bhangra has become an international art form, not restricted to men or Punjabis or even to Indians. Cultural globalization at its best.)

Unfortunately, that was the only dance I could watch; I had to attend my meeting. But someone kindly handed me a flyer.  It was a performance by the Duniya Dance and Drum Company, which “performs and teaches traditional and innovative performance pieces from Guinea, West Africa and Punjab, India.”

It’s one of the Rotunda Dance Series. So maybe there are other surprises in store for people who think they’re going to a government meeting.

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Computer-generated Iris Scans?

I’ve spent the last several days looking through information on India’s new Unique Identity (UID) system, which is based on biometrics: ten fingerprints, two iris scans. While there’s broad support for an identification card, there have been questions about the biometrics.

So just today I came across this article that suggested it was possible to computer-generate iris scans that could mimic a biometric reading: Your iris may soon be the target of identity thieves.

“Security researchers have successfully fooled commercial iris-recognition scans with a computer-generated replica of a human eye, raising questions as to the effectiveness of such biometric systems. Generating the fake iris only takes a few minutes, and does not require the original eye to be present.”

This is the result of research at West Virginia University (together with Universidad de Autonoma de Madrid) intended to find out how to defeat a biometric system.  Generating the fake iris needs the biometric data provided by the real iris.

“Right now the research assumes that whoever is trying to beat the iris scanner has access to the codes that scanner would generate from a real iris. (In this case, the team used codes made public for research purposes.) In reality, those would hopefully be carefully protected and encrypted, meaning it would be another security task entirely to get hold of them. But unlike a password, you can’t just scrap your eyeball and get a new one. If a single large user database was breached, this technique could render thousands, or even millions, of irises insecure in an instant.”

I don’t know how easy (or not) this is. But it does suggest vulnerabilities.

Hackers are born in the same environment as IT professionals, and India has the all the preconditions. I can see it now: World class research into hacking biometric systems, being performed in a back alley in Wadala. With practical proofs of concept.

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India: 1.2 billion Unique Identities

I don’t have a birth certificate. Back then in India, few did. Many people weren’t even born in hospital. I was, so I actually have a scrap of paper on the hospital’s letterhead, stating that “A baby girl was born to Mrs. A.C. Bose,” with a date. That’s all.

How then could I prove who I was? It wasn’t really a question; I was whoever I claimed to be. More important was to prove my age: Indian systems for education or recruitment or memberships of all sorts were full of age cut-offs.


My Board-issued high school certificate with my name and date of birth was my first actual legal document. (Though I’d traveled overseas, I’d been listed – like most children – on my mother’s passport.)  The school insisted our parents verify both name and birthdate, because it wasn’t easily changed once submitted. In the process, we discovered a classmate we’d known as Sweetie for ten years was actually Rajivi; another had misspelled her name throughout her school years, and now corrected it. Some people discovered they’d always celebrated their birthday on the wrong date.

Indian names transliterated into English don’t have standard spellings, though people who operate in an English-language system do standardize their names.  But I still remember my friend Navin being quite dismayed that somehow his name had been spelled Naveen on his passport. When I registered to vote in Mumbai (then Bombay), my name was transcribed into Hindi or maybe Marathi, and then back again to English. It completed this transformation as Rupas Bhosa (but I was still allowed to vote).

Internationally, the high school certificate didn’t count for much, perhaps because it didn’t name my parents. Instead,  I got a sworn affidavit from my aunt, saying she was present at my birth and could verify my parentage and date and place of birth. Later,  my passport (which by then did list parental names) became my main identity document.


When we got our first apartment in Mumbai, friends told us we needed to apply for a ration card. “Why?” I asked. We didn’t need subsidized wheat flour or sugar; we could afford open-market goods, and we wanted to leave the rations to those who really needed it.

“No,” my friends said, “It’s not for flour and sugar, it’s for proof of address. You can’t get a cooking-gas cylinder without it.”

After the application, they said, an inspector would make a surprise visit to verify the facts – mainly, that we did actually live at the stated address. Problem? With both of us working full time, there’d be no one at home.

Fortunately, Mumbai inspectors were resourceful. He talked to our neighbors, who vouched for us. A few weeks later, we had our ration cards and then our gas cylinder.


Most of India’s children then didn’t graduate from high school and get the readily-accepted Certificate. Proof of identity came from other things. Voter records. Ration cards. Affidavits provided by various people, ideally a government official. Permanent Account Numbers (PAN), issued to income-tax payers. Many older people didn’t know their birth dates by the western calendar, though they might know under which star they were born .  In such cases, faced with the need to provide information in the organized sector – such as getting passports – they guessed.

Now, decades later, the situation in India is only marginally better. Over 40% of births aren’t registered. Most Indians don’t have high school certificates or driver licenses, nor do they hold passports. Not everyone registers to vote – and, as I know from experience, the rolls aren’t necessarily accurate for identification; their job is to ensure that everyone votes only once, not that names aren’t misspelled. Only a small fraction of Indians pay direct taxes and have PAN numbers.

Unlike the US with its Driver’s Licenses and Social Security Numbers, or Singapore with its NRIC, India doesn’t have identifiers for its citizens or residents. So now an ambitious project now underway plans to offer every Indian a 12-digit unique identification number. It’s ambitious, it’s fraught, and it’s got teething troubles – but it seems to have come further than anyone expected.


The plan is to issue every Indian resident a Unique Identification number, the UID. It’s twelve randomly generated digits that  deliberately does not contain information about age, caste, or gender. And it’s backed, not by the memories of family members, but by bio-metrics: Ten fingerprints, and two iris scans.

The UID project plans to provide each resident of India (whether a citizen or not) with an Identity document. It’s being managed by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), within the Planning Commission, and is headed by Nandan Nilekani (formerly of computer company Infosys). It was originated by a group of overseas Indians who returned to give the project its start. It’s being called “Aadhaar” (meaning foundation).

Getting a UID requires a proof of identity from other sources (the ubiquitous ration cards, voter enrollments, Permanent Account Numbers for taxes, and driving licenses – a total of 18 acceptable documents are listed on the UIDAI website) and a proof of address (a further 33 documents are acceptable). The idea is that any documentation that a person might have can be rolled into this one number, which will then be forever linked with that person’s name and biometrics. For those without documents, there are “introducers.” These are people who, once they have a UID, can introduce others.

Right now, the plan is barreling ahead. According to the UIDAI website, 187.6 million “Aadhaar” documents have been issued, of which 46 million are in Andhra Pradesh, 37m in Maharashtra, and 15m in Karnataka. The hope is that all of India’s 1.2 billion people will be covered within the next year or two. The fundamental process is acquisition of the personal and biometric data, followed by “deduplication” – or weeding out duplicates.

There have been questions about the registration process. Press reports indicate very rapid work, perhaps overly so, because the registering organizations are paid for productivity. People commenting on websites, however, report tedious waits and delays in getting registered – and uncertainly as to the benefits.


Here’s what the government says Aadhaar will do:

  • Save taxpayers funds by removing “ghost” workers from welfare and job entitlement rolls.
  • Provide a convenient single ID number that allows people to do banking and other transactions without need for further documents to prove identity or residence.
  • Eventually substitute many other identity documents, or be incorporated into them.

(Since the usage framework wasn’t rolled out prior to issuance, most of this hasn’t happened yet, and UID holders are grumbling that it’s useless. Patience may be needed here.)

There’s also the issue of National Security. India has an issue with illegal immigrants mainly from Bangladesh – or it may have one, but since there’s no documentation, it can’t be verified. This is layered with fears that these immigrants, being Muslim, may provide cover for terrorists. (I’m not sure how this works; Bangladesh isn’t exactly terrorist central. And India has its own, completely legitimate, Muslim citizens – in fact, it’s one of the world’s largest Muslim populations.) However, the Aadhaar number is issued to every resident, whether or not they’re citizens or legally present in India. There’s a separate plan to create a National Population Register, which would include citizenship – but it’s not clear now whether these databases will run in parallel or be melded.


Few of the benefits of the UID scheme work unless it is universal. Otherwise, it becomes just another documentation option, joining the PAN number and passport number and Driving license and ration card.

For now, the government permits any agency to require its clients to give a UID number. It’s unclear right now whether this will mean that the field offices will have to keep biometric readers, or if they will be able to query a central database for a name/ number reference.

Eventually, the theory goes, no one will be able to access these services without a UID, and so everyone will get one. This is pretty much how Social Security Numbers have worked in the US (though they have no photographs or biometrics). They’re not compulsory, but it’s hugely inconvenient not to have one. (The National Population Register is compulsory.)

Already, other uses are planned. One is to use it to track Tuberculosis patients, especially multiply-drug-resistant ones that move across districts, to co-ordinate their treatment. There’s talk of merging the tax authorities’ Permanent Account Number with the UID, and of using it to substitute voter registration cards.

Anyway:  Indians quite possibly will have unique ID documents within a few years.  Meanwhile, there are opportunities inherent in the process, which will generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and a market for special-purpose hardware.  Companies can expect the UID to make a lot of commercial transactions easier. But there are still a number of concerns relating to the UID program.

  • Invasion of privacy. A database that includes the biometrics of a billion people will inevitably tempt the government to add information and cross-reference it with other sources of information. There are fears that it could invade privacy, or that security forces could use it for surveillance. (In the US, until 1972, the SSN was specifically forbidden from use as an ID – but it was so convenient that everyone ignored that provision. Now it’s no longer forbidden.)
  • Commercial use. Though the government isn’t collecting the data for that purpose, it could become very attractive to companies – particularly if it’s cross-linked to, say, demographic or income information. Will the government be tempted, at some point in the future, to sell it?
  • Hacking of the database. The more we depend on a centralized database, the more vulnerable we become to its being hacked or disabled – or its data stolen or misused. I have to admit I’m wondering about this. The fingerprints and iris-scans are reduced, after all, to bits and bytes. Let’s say I’m registered with the database. Could someone hack the computer and steal my number, associating it with a different set of biometrics? Presumably the “deduplication” would prevent this at the acquisition stage – but how often will the database be checked? Will it be deduplicated frequently?
  • Mistakes and bad data. The scheme is being rolled out so rapidly that some bad data and fraudulent enrollments have already been caught. Can this process create a clean database?
  • Glitches in the biometrics process. People fear glitches in the biometric process as the UIDs issued run into hundreds of thousands. Others point out that biometric data can be accessed without a person’s consent, using fingerprints left on glass surfaces, and iris-scans obtained through fraud. Even without fraud, problems could arise. Laborers, they point out, may have worn out fingerprints. What about people with damaged irises?  The government says that by using 12 biometrics, and supplementing it with a different process for people with fingerprint/ iris-scan problems,  it reduces errors to extremely manageable levels.

It’s not just laborers. The other day, I went to have my finger-prints scanned. (In San Francisco – not for Aadhaar.) The machine tried, and gave up. I damped my finger-tips, dried my finger-tips, and tried different angles as the operator suggested. Nothing worked. And back when I used to visit Dubai frequently, I had a biometric card that should have allowed me rapid processing based on my fingerprints. Nope. The reader could never match my scanned prints with the ones on my card.

Too much time at the keyboard, I suspect… my computer ate my finger-prints.

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