Where India's New ID Card Project Has Already Gone Wrong

Don Tennant

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.

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Sep 29, 2010 4:09 AM Pranay Pranay  says:

Well firstly, I think your opening comment generalising IT workers from India is completely unfair. India is a different culture - much different from your own - so any problems the West faces can generally be attributed to miscommunication, which is a dual effort (always).

However, on the whole, despite being an Indian, I am in agreement. Nilekani should have recruited non-Indians. Clearly there wasn't a national security risk (else they wouldn't have worked in a startup environment) so recruitment seemed to have hinged on Nilekani's personal preference.

I'm sure you have seen though, that Indian IT companies, even when they hire abroad, tend to hire Indian origin people. I think it is appalling that this is generally the case.

Sep 29, 2010 4:20 AM Dolores Dolores  says: in response to Pranay

Very good insight, Don, there's hope for you yet. Those of us on the ground in IT careers have been noticing this for years. Double standards. Different rules for them and us. Yup, for once, I applaud your blog.

Sep 29, 2010 4:52 AM Don Tennant Don Tennant  says: in response to Dolores

Uh-oh. I think hell just froze over.

Thanks for the kind words, Dolores.

Sep 29, 2010 5:01 AM Don Tennant Don Tennant  says: in response to Pranay

I did not generalize about IT workers from India in my opening comment. I would ask that you be more careful to read what I actually write before commenting on it.

Sep 30, 2010 1:11 AM Jay Jay  says:

Actually, global players are involved. please get your data right. please refer to this news item - http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/tech/news/software-services/MindTree-consortium-leads-UID-race/articleshow/6166605.cms

there are companies from ireland and lithuania which are part of this. they won the contract based on the cost. And for the bidding, global players like accenture and IBM participated and came close to winning as well.

also, the people who joined nilekani's core team are doing mostly pro-bono work because they want to give back to the country from where they came. i am sure if there are other people who volunteer with nandan, they will be welcome. if possible, please check whether someone has volunteered and whether they have been accepted/denied.

Sep 30, 2010 1:20 AM Dolores Dolores  says: in response to Ian Hay

That language barrier is just India, Inc. talking out of both sides of its mouth. Turn that argument around and see how long it holds without challenge for the formerly English-dominated tech field. There'd be lawsuits out the wazoo in no time if we tried that.

Sep 30, 2010 3:43 AM sean sean  says: in response to Don Tennant

The author of this article is very ill informed. You need to research well before publishing articles. Like the previous comment that has llink that shows there is a bidding process in which multinational companies have participated.

Gets your facts right before writing next time

Sep 30, 2010 7:44 AM Dolores Dolores  says: in response to sean

I wouldn't take the assertions of India-defenders at face value. Not after I've been involved in the analysis of other things that have been said. Don was right the first time, there's something odd about this.

Sep 30, 2010 7:54 AM Long Dyck Don Long Dyck Don  says: in response to sean

I don't know man ... Accenture hire 100% Indian to do the job even the outside cover is US company. It does mean nothing when a US company wins contract at all man because it does not benefit any bit to US citizen at all.. At my company 90% IT personels are Indian why bunch of my IT friends are staying home. Don mentioned 4.3% unemployment in IT and I never get it because I experience myself after a year of searching for employment, why it is so tough to IT job now a day.

Sep 30, 2010 8:09 AM Long Dyck Don Long Dyck Don  says: in response to sunny

Only one out of how many ? I probably 1 out of few thousands.. Base on the information indicated he lives in India for 14 years.  This guy is probably married to an Indian citizen or he probably has some indian root..

Sep 30, 2010 8:25 AM Long Dyck Don Long Dyck Don  says: in response to Wakjob

You are right on the mark of 80%. I just sit down and I calculated most of my friends either left the field or currently on unemployment pay check only me and two other friends have jobs. It is so sad and depressed. We are the ones who bill this country IT and we all got treat this way. Some day America will pay !! there is no doubt about it...

I don't know about best and brightest, most of H-1B workers I work with are either rookie or below average. I would say the worst and darkest instead of best and brightest. I have no idea where they got the idea to say those guys are the best and brightest. Alright, I am not going to be bias 100% I do give some credit to Indian workers whom went to college in the US they are the ones are doing a lot better than the Indians went to India universities. Some of the Indians told due to high demand in India, they are willing to hire anybody without Computer Science major or probably fraud that is probably give why they are not so bright like Don told people here. Anyway I would like say thanks to Don gives me a good goofy laugh out his all his posts. Don  probably got pay to write those propagandas..

Now a day I don't trust any news anymore.. Some private groups like NASSCOM or coporates could hire some guys like Don to spread the news such as 4.3% unemployment rate in IT field so they can grab more H-1B visas. Or Don could be mistaken the unemployment rate of Indian H-1B visa workers or may be Don is on drug or whatever.. Anyway it is funny to read his propaganda posts..

Sep 30, 2010 10:19 AM Wakjob Wakjob  says:

"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."

Ah yes Sun Microsystems - as in the company that laid off all its American workers in 2001, replaced them all with Indians and Chinese, and then promptly began the descent to an $8 stock. And which then had to be sold off to Oracle in order to avoid the embarassment of having to close Sun's doors with Indians at the helm. The best and the brightest like that, right Don? Most likely Nadhamuni got canned or laid off in one of Sun's numerous layoffs and was desperate for a job.


"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."

Thanks for admitting that what American IT workers have been telling you all along is right Don: that Indians only hire other Indians. If you think these people are open and think "diversity" like you do, you are dreaming. India is the most racist country on earth. And the 10 million or so of them that are in U.S. companies are deliberately denying jobs to qualified Americans.

Sep 30, 2010 10:26 AM Wakjob Wakjob  says: in response to sean

Oh sure, there's a bidding process but in the end the work will always go to Indians. Don't be fooled by sham bidding.

Sep 30, 2010 10:30 AM Wakjob Wakjob  says: in response to Long Dyck Don

Let's see, wasn't AIG one of the companies that needed to be bailed out? Oh that's right it was - after AIG had hired Accenture to do its work. You know - Accenture - the company that hires nearly 100% Indian worker and that won't hire Americans. Guess they're not the best and brightest after all if the company needed to be bailed out.

As for unemployment in IT, anyone who claims the unemployment rate is 4.2% is a fool. Among U.S. Citizen IT workers it has to be at least 80%.

Sep 30, 2010 10:53 AM sunny sunny  says:

Wyly Wade is one of the "non-indians" employed into a senior role in this project


click on read more.

Sep 30, 2010 12:01 PM Ian Hay Ian Hay  says:

Would the language barrier have anything to do with it, i.e. Indians might be hiring Indians so that they can speak the language that they are most comfortable?

Oct 1, 2010 4:08 AM Dolores Dolores  says: in response to Long Dyck Don

It's no speculation that they could hire lobbyists - they did. That's why we occasionally see swarms of "news" stories designed to whomp up sympathy for them and their "American dream." Never mind ours.

They lobby our elected representatives constantly and believe that this is paying off for them. http://topinews.com/mainstream/2010/09/30/obamas-anti-outsourcing-bill-blocked-at-us-senate/35975/ They both lobby on their own and hire lobbying firms such as Hill and Knowlton. http://www.deccanherald.com/content/95947/indian-inc-need-not-lose.html

Meanwhile, the poor American worker has come to fear something far beyond ordinary office politics so far as his career is concerned. Dirty tricks. Here's just once example: http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100929/full/467516a.html

As a result, the poor American worker is subject to a fusillade of unwarranted criticism to explain the downward course of his career. He is routinely attacked for being greedy, having out of date skills, not enough education, and for being lazy. None of that was ever true of American workers - look at our history.

There's definitely something fishy going on here, and the scale of it has grown so large that the average American is finally waking up to the enormity of it.  Those on the other side want to portray globalism as if it were some inexorable force for the common good, when it actually resembles more a playground fight where some are smaller and/or outnumbered.

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