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Sunday , May 23 , 2010
Since 1st March, 1999
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The numbers bonanza

It’s a 12-digit number — and it’s got every information technology and biometric company, management consultancy firm and a host of other bodies falling over each other to help midwife it into existence.

We are referring of course to the unique identification (UID) number that will be allotted to every citizen of the country. The project, spearheaded by former Infosys boss Nandan Nilekani, involves a gargantuan data collection and data processing exercise, including the mapping of biometric information (fingerprinting and iris scanning) of each and every Indian. Little wonder that it is expected to generate contracts worth thousands of crore rupees, out of which orders worth Rs 600 crore are already up for grabs.

“The opportunities are plenty,” Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) head Nandan Nilekani said at a seminar on developing an ecosystem for the unique identification number implementation in Delhi recently. “Many companies have shown an interest in this ambitious project. We plan to involve both the public and private sectors.”

Reflecting their interest, senior executives of companies such as Wipro, Infosys, Comat, Visiontek and Nokia were present at the seminar held on the day the project was rechristened Aadhar — the Hindi word for foundation. The sponsors included IBM, Microsoft, consultancy firm Accenture, European biometric company Sagem Securite and smart card provider Smart Chip — companies that are vying to get a piece of the UID action.

“We are here to tell the UIDAI about our contribution to other government projects. Since we are interested in being a part of this assignment, we’d like to know their expectations as well,” says a senior Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) officer. “Like all players in the industry, we look forward to contributing to the success of this project,” adds a Microsoft spokesperson.

With the first phase of numbers to be issued from August — and some 600 million to be allotted in the next four and a half years — some deals have already been struck. Last month, the UIDAI appointed management consultants Ernst & Young, which will advise the body on how to execute the project. It outbid competitors Booz Allen, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, Capgemini and PA Consulting.

“We will acquire the best talent and resources in application software, biometrics and computing infrastructure. Our job is to ensure that these companies offer cost-effective and proven technology solutions,” says Sunil R. Chandiramani, partner and business leader, government projects, Ernst & Young.

The Bangalore-based MindTree Consultancy too has won a contract for an application software development, maintenance and support agency (ASDMSA). “It outbid 10 top IT players such as IBM, Infosys, Wipro, TCS and Accenture for this Rs 20-crore contract. But the formal deal is yet to be signed,” says a source at the UIDAI.

The ASDMSA will complete the entire application lifecycle — “from designing, developing, testing, maintaining and supporting the UID application to providing help desk services from our Bangalore centre,” says UIDAI director general Ram Sewak Sharma.

Over the next few months, more and more contracts will be inked. The project will generate business for computing, database, storage vendors and system integrators. IT vendors such as Hewlett Packard, Sun Microsystems and Wipro are expected to bid for the multi-crore contract for computing infrastructure, which will include cyber security implementation in the Bangalore centre of the UIDAI.

That’s not all. A report published by brokerage firm CLSA last week says that the UID project will also create increased business opportunities for banks, microfinance institutions and telecom service providers. That’s because many people, especially in rural areas, are unable to avail of bank loans or opt for a mobile connection because they do not have the right sort of identity proof. Once they get the UID, they will be able to go for loans or insurance or even mobile telephone services, leading to a bump up in business for these industries.

For the moment, though, it’s the mammoth task of collecting data — the name, date of birth, gender, address, along with biometric information (fingerprints, photograph and iris scans) — that is occupying centrestage. The job has been given chiefly to the rural development ministry, the food, civil supplies and consumer protection department, the Indian postal department and the Registrar General of India. All of them will act as registrars to the project.

But here too, private agencies will be involved, says Sharma. “A body that maintains a huge database of people — a school, hospital, bank, an insurance agency or a mobile company, for instance — can provide such data to the registrars.”

Needless to say, many private companies are eager to participate in the data collection process. Chetan Garga, vice-president of Sungard, a Pennsylvania-based software solution company, says he has had several rounds of talks with the UIDAI. “In the US, we maintain a database of our clients who are mostly financial service providers and educational institutions. We would like to provide a similar database in India,” he says.

Processing the biometric information of a billion and more people is another tricky area of work for which bids have started pouring in. International biometric solution providers such as NEC, Steria and Sagem Securite are among the eight bidders. “Cleaning and filtering the biometric data by flawless software will be the task of the biometric company. De-duplication (eliminating redundant data) will be its main job,” says Chandiramani.

Besides, tens of thousands of fingerprint and iris scanners will be required for collecting biometric data. “Our devices are being used in the government’s national population register project. We would like to contribute here as well,” says Young S. Moon, vice-president, marketing and sales, Suprema, a Korean biometrics company.

Telecom companies too will get a share of the mammoth project, says Chandiramani. “They will provide us with the digital bandwidth to transfer the raw data to the data centre in Bangalore,” he says.

Since the UIDAI plans to train around 1.04 lakh enrolling agents across the country, Indian computer training institutes such as NIIT and Aptech are also keen to make their presence felt. “There are two aspects of IT training for enrolment agencies — the assessment and screening of potential enrolment agents and the training of those selected. Though we would like to do both the jobs, we are allowed to bid only for one. So we will bid for the job that fetches us more money,” says Shrutidhar Paliwal, a spokesperson for Aptech.

But it is not just the biggies who are in the UID fray. Small enterprises and individuals are also trying to elbow their way in. Last month, designer Atul S. Pande from Maharashtra won Rs 1 lakh in a competition to design the new UID logo. “The logo — a red half-thumbprint surrounded by yellow sun rays — signifies that it is a new dawn for people with an identity,” says Pande. Moreover, about Rs 1-2 crore will be spent on awareness campaigns, for which advertising agencies will be bidding soon.

India Inc., however, is crying for more. “We want the UIDAI to invite private banks and companies such as ICICI Bank, Airtel, HCL or Wipro as registrars since their reach will be as wide as that of any government agency,” says Rama Vedashree, vice-president, National Association of Software and Service Companies, the umbrella body of software companies.

Clearly, the UID project will not just give the Indian citizen his or her own ineluctable identity. Over the next five to 10 years it will also be a mini industry of sorts — a driver of commerce and growth.

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