We will have to vaccinate the whole planet
The Sunday Interview Nandan Nilekani The billionaire founder of Infosys believes tech holds the key to unlocking the Covid conundrum, writes Robin Pagnamenta
Nandan Nilekani has never been afraid of dreaming big.
The billionaire founder of Infosys is sitting in his home office in Bangalore talking about the future of humanity.
The first step to ending the pandemic naturally is to develop an effective coronavirus vaccine, he says. But once one exists, how will it be rolled out globally? What technology will be required to ensure that everyone can benefit as quickly and equitably as possible - from the streets of big cities like London and New York to the remotest corners of India, Africa or the Amazon?
Nilekani - a business visionary who built Infosys from a two-man band into a global technology and outsourcing giant worth £40bn - believes he has the answer and that India's experience building a biometric identity card scheme for its population of 1.35bn offers lessons for the world.
"Effectively we will have to vaccinate the entire planet - so how do we reach everywhere? How do you make sure everyone is covered? This is about large-scale information management. Technology will have a supporting role."
Bespectacled and dressed in a blue shirt surrounded by books and paintings, this is vintage Nilekani, a business tycoon whose interests have always ranged far beyond the narrow world of software development where he built his $1.9bn (£1.4bn) fortune.
When he created Infosys in the Indian city of Pune in 1981 with just $250 of starting capital, its first office was the front room of his partner's home, Narayana Murthy - now the father-inlaw of Britain's Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, who married Murthy's daughter, Akshata, in 2009.
Today, with 240,000 employees in 40 countries, Infosys has a blue-chip client list that includes many of the world's biggest companies - from HSBC to Goldman Sachs and Cisco Systems to Rio Tinto.
Scattered across the globe from Canary Wharf to Mumbai and Silicon valley, its global army of techies maintains a low profile but quietly runs many of the essential systems on which modern business relies - writing code, managing databases, providing back office services and manning call centres.
And yet Nilekani is less motivated by the business itself than the use of technology to solve big problems.
To tackle Covid-19 Nilekani, 65, believes what will be needed is a global biometric ID system to handle the digital immunity certificates required to determine who has been vaccinated and who is at risk.
Perhaps more than anyone else on the planet, Nilekani thinks he knows how this could be done.
A passionate believer in the power of technology to accelerate India's development, after nearly 20 years co-founding and building Infosys as chief executive, in 2009 he left the group to become chairman of the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) - the nation's push to create a biometric ID scheme. Aadhaar, as it is known in India, has been called "the biggest social project on the planet".
With more than 1.2bn users - each one of whom has a unique ID authenticated by iris and fingerprint scans - it is used for everything from the disbursement of agricultural subsidies to healthcare benefits and financial services.
The Aadhaar scheme came into its own during the pandemic, he says. India's government used it to distribute emergency payments to hundreds of millions of people left unable to work during lockdown.
Now, as the world races to develop effective treatments and vaccines, Nilekani believes a similar scheme applied globally could help eradicate the pandemic.
He dismisses the view that Aadhaar shows India is moving in the same direction as China in its use of tech for surveillance and social control. "I don't think it's fair," he says. "I would not compare them."
Nilekani certainly doesn't seem like an authoritarian. A keen fan of Neil Young who eschews the flashy lifestyles of many Indian billionaires, he has had a unique career.
Born and raised in Bangalore, Nilekani and Murthy have arguably done more than any one else to build India's IT and outsourcing industry, a powerful engine of economic growth which now generates $191bn in annual revenues and employs 4m people.
During his five-year tenure as chief executive from 2002 to 2007, Infosys's revenue grew sixfold to $3bn as countless Western companies began outsourcing work to India and other low-cost countries. After nearly a decade spent outside Infosys, in which his family holds a 2.3pc stake, he returned as chairman in 2017 after a brief spell dabbling in Indian politics.
Married with two grown up children, who both studied at Yale University, he ran unsuccessfully for parliament in 2014 and wrote two books about the future of India and the role technology can play in improving governance and tackling corruption.
From his home in India's buzzing technology capital, Nilekani has been engaged in a fight of his own against the virus - helping oversee the response of India's most global and connected company.
Like other big companies Infosys was forced to adapt quickly to an extraordinary situation.
"It was all done in a matter of weeks and 99pc of people were able to work from home so it was very successful," he says. After weeks spent in lockdown, Nilekani says India's handling of the pandemic - while far from perfect - has stacked up well given its vast population and underfunded healthcare system.
"The number of cases is mounting," he says. "We are number three in the world today [in terms of cases], but I think for many reasons, perhaps a relatively youthful population, it's not quite as catastrophic as was painted when this all began."
With 1.35bn people, India has so far recorded nearly 53,000 deaths. That is a tragic total, of course, but not so bad when compared with the UK, which with one-twentieth of the population has suffered over 41,000 deaths.
While Covid has been a colossal human tragedy, Nilekani believes the economic forces unleashed by the pandemic also represent a potentially vast business opportunity for India.
"I think in the US so many people are moving out of Silicon Valley to Austin, Texas or other centres where costs are lower and the quality of life is better. If you can have an employee in Boise, Idaho, why not in Bangalore? It's increased the comfort level about doing work from anywhere… Absolutely we are going to see a big ramp-up [in activity]."
That trend, combined with a booming domestic start-up scene in India, could offer a big boost to the country's technology industry, which has received a huge infusion of foreign cash in recent months, he claims.
Since the start of 2020, the biggest names in US tech have pumped $17bn into India - including $1bn from Amazon in January, $6bn from Facebook in April and $10bn from Google last month.
So could the next Google or Facebook emerge from India? Nilekani demurs, but clearly believes it is possible. "You can never say never. If you had asked me four years ago if a Chinese company would come from nowhere and become so dominant as TikTok, I wouldn't have believed it."
One critical factor is the increasingly strict visa regimes being applied in the US and UK, which are becoming a growing obstacle for talented Indians.
He views them as a massive own goal. "Every second company in Silicon Valley has an Indian chief executive," he says, reeling off the likes of Microsoft's Satya Nadella and Google's Sundar Pichai.
"The immigration of bright people to the US has played a big role in its economic vitality… If the US is no longer a magnet for such talent then that talent will stay at home and build businesses here… It's in the US's strategic interest to stay open."