If there's one thing that gets me in more trouble than writing about IT workers from India, it's writing about the national ID card issue. I can't even contemplate what havoc combing the two might create, so I considered ignoring the story about India undertaking a massive technology project to create a national ID card system for its 1.2 billion people. Then I thought, what the heck.
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, India is recruiting its best and brightest from around the world to help with a project that aims to create a national ID card with a unique 12-digit number and biometric identifiers:
The project, which seeks to collect fingerprint and iris scans from all residents and store them in a massive central database of unique IDs, is considered by many specialists the most technologically and logistically complex national identification effort ever attempted. To pull it off, India has recruited tech gurus of Indian origin from around the world, including the co-founder of online photo service Snapfish and employees from Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Intel Corp.
Now, I'm on the record as being in favor of national ID cards. As I wrote in a post in March, "National ID Cards: Pointless Privacy Argument Is Getting Old," the potential benefit in the area of crime prevention is far more compelling to me than the privacy argument. So in my view, the project India is undertaking is a laudable one.
What I'm less enthusiastic about is the apparent nationalistic nature of this particular endeavor, at least as it was reported in the Journal. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh handpicked former Infosys Technologies CEO Nandan Nilekani to head the project, which seems perfectly reasonable. But where Nilekani took it from there strikes me as unnecessarily restrictive and inexcusably shortsighted:
Mr. Nilekani started recruiting Indians in the global technology industry in the summer of 2009. These early recruits included Srikanth Nadhamuni, who had spent 16 years as a technology engineer for companies like Sun Microsystems and Intel. Word spread in Silicon Valley that Mr. Nilekani wanted help, and by the fall a few others arrived in Bangalore.
There's a self-reliant dimension to this that's absolutely legitimate, and the down-to-earth, altruistic nature of the effort is pretty cool:
The team rented an apartment at a gated community on the eastern outskirts of the city to use as an office. Everyone worked for free. The group worked in the living room. They bought a few tables, two whiteboards and some markers. For food, they went to Mr. Nadhamuni's house nearby, where his wife served rice cakes, lentil crepes and lemon rice. Visitors had to use a wooden shoe rack as a bench since there weren't enough chairs.
But all of that said, the approach sends a troubling message to the rest of the world: Only Indians are qualified and welcome to work on this project. Regardless of the intent, that's an understandably hard pill to swallow in countries like the United States that have welcomed Indian technology talent to their shores for years.
So, note to India: You can't have it both ways. Nilekani should have sought the best and brightest, regardless of nationality. Hopefully, as this project unfolds, we'll find that these Indian technology leaders have called on the expertise of people from all over the world to help bring it to fruition. Otherwise they will have failed to take away from their experience in the United States and elsewhere what's far more important than any technology expertise they might have gained here: an appreciation for the value of diversity.