India’s successful tech executives are beginning to focus on social problems. Saritha Rai asks: Could this be just what the country needs?

A handful of India’s technology entrepreneurs have put the country on the world map as a global outsourcing hub and a technology force to be reckoned with. Now one of them has, unusually, crossed the divide between private enterprise and public service.

Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and until recently co-chairman of the country’s number two outsourcing firm Infosys Technologies, has just taken over as chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India.

The authority is tasked with providing a unique, validated identity to Indians who either have a befuddling assortment of government-sponsored identities, or belong to the illiterate poor with no documentary proof whatsoever of their own existence.

Nilekani’s crossing to the public sector has put the spotlight on whether technology and outsourcing leaders can help with some of the country’s challenges, including dealing with poverty and providing education, healthcare and even basic facilities such as running water and sanitation to the population.

In a country where successful business leaders rarely make the transition into the government, the much-admired Nilekani’s move could have a cascading effect. Where previously just a few successful outsourcing industry professionals were making the switch from ‘doing well to doing good’, his shift could make the practice commonplace.

Nilekani, 54, certainly has the credentials for the job. As co-founder of Infosys, a company with more than $4bn in sales last year, he helped revolutionise the technology outsourcing industry worldwide. He famously inspired author Thomas Friedman’s bestselling volume on globalisation, The World is Flat. In his own recent book, Imagining India, he outlined plans for improving governance in the country.

India’s proposed unique identification is along the lines of the American social security number or the British national insurance number. However, the task of establishing the identity of 1.2 billion Indians is infinitely more complex.

Urban, educated Indians have a multitude of identification cards provided by the government such as passport, driver’s licence, income tax payee card and voter’s card. No single ID card is widespread, though. For instance, less than a 10th of the country’s residents pay income tax.

Even worse, for a slice of impoverished, illiterate Indians, who can prove neither their date of birth nor their place of residence, a lack of identity makes it near impossible for them to access government subsidies, jobs and even bank loans. Many of them are simply excluded from development.

Nilekani has long spoke out about the revolutionary social possibilities of technology. A unique identity could reduce graft, improve governance and make economic growth more inclusive, he has said.

But Nilekani now has to walk the talk. “Properly executed technology-based transformation initiatives can have a beneficial impact on some of India’s challenges,” he told me in a recent interview.

As if acknowledging India’s tortuous bureaucracy and its corrupt political system known to blockade change, Nilekani added, “Technology is only one piece of the puzzle”.

Technology will provide scalability and security in the ID project, which will include a massive database of personal information, photographs and biometrics to ensure that every Indian, whether living in the remotest corner or the densest urban sprawl, is assigned a single and unique number.

“Technology can handle scale very well, unlike the paper and pen systems used in India until now,” says Arun Ramu, who quit as Infosys’ product engineering and testing division head to join Bangalore-based eGovernments, a foundation that partners with city and town municipalities across India, using technology to improve services to citizens.

Ramu is witness to a slow drift of outsourcing executives to the non-profit social sector. The trend is driven by both the economic downturn as well as the reward of improving social circumstances, Ramu says.

Outsourcing industry executives like Ramu bring with them competencies in team building, problem solving and rolling out change. In India, they could just make the much needed difference.