Getting India’s digital frame to stack up

K Giriprakash | Updated on May 18, 2020

iSPIRT’s Siddharth Shetty ( left ) and Sanjay Jain   -  SOMASHEKAR G R N

How a team of selfless volunteers at iSPIRT built an open digital platform – in the same self-effacing spirit with which halwa is served at langar!

What does the delectable, ghee-infused halwa served at a gurdwara langar have in common with IndiaStack, the unified services platform that is the foundation for a whole host of citizen-focussed digital technology initiatives in the ‘public goods’ space?

The question is not as quirky as it sounds. At least, not when the bespectacled Sharad Sharma, the co-founder of iSPIRT (Indian Software Product Industry Roundtable) — a non-profit think tank committed to making India a ‘software product nation’ and to ‘building public goods without public money’ — explains it with a professorial air.

“You will find people who swear by the food served at langars,” says Sharma. “I know people who say that the halwa served there was the best they’ve had in years.”

In his reckoning, the reason for that perception may explain the success of IndiaStack.

“The reason why the halwa at the langar tastes exceptionally good is that whoever cooked it was doing it out of a sense of devotion, without consideration for commercial or other personal interests,” he says. That same spirit of selfless contribution for the public good underlies many areas of endeavour in the Indian socio-cultural context, notes Sharma. Against the Western protocol of securing copyrights for, say, musical compositions, it is the spirit of ‘copyleft’ that pervades the country’s cultural landscape.

The spirit of ‘creative commons’

India, he claims, “has the longest history of copyleft cultural artefacts. When an Indian musician composed a raga, it was traditionally offered as ‘creative commons’ for public consumption.”

It is with that same public-spirited motive that IndiaStack, which has won the BusinessLine Changemaker Award for Financial Transformation, was built as a technology platform. It is a set of publicly available Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), which allows governments, businesses, and start-ups to utilise digital infrastructure to advance presence-less, paperless, and cashless service delivery.

The Open API team at iSPIRT has been a pro bono partner in the development, evolution, and evangelisation of these APIs and systems.

iSPIRT was one of the main drivers behind the development of IndiaStack, but the credit for bringing it to life goes to a government initiative that launched an open API policy as part of an attempt to kick-start and empower Digital India programmes in a democratised way.

An open API provides programmers with access to some underlying software or data, which programmers use to build their own applications. IndiaStack effectively serves as a set of open APIs for public and private players to build applications for all Indians, especially the under-served.

Indicatively, IndiaStack includes many individual APIs such as Aadhaar for authentication, e-KYC documents, e-Sign, Unified Payments Interface (UPI) and privacy-protected data-sharing. However, it is easier to imagine it as a ‘stack’ of three layers: Identity, Payments and Data Empowerment. These APIs reduce the transaction costs of service delivery by making transactions digital, paperless and cashless.

Taken together, the APIs that make up IndiaStack enable opportunities in the financial services, healthcare and education sectors. The same infrastructure powers governmental as well as private initiatives. For example, governments can design Direct Benefit Transfer schemes just as easily as developers can build software and create businesses around the readily available infrastructure offered through IndiaStack.

Copyleft principle

iSPIRT is perhaps the best example of the copyleft spirit behind creating technology for the public good. The not-for-profit entity comprises a bunch of software engineers who came together to create technology solutions for the public good, and what is unique about them is that they are all volunteers who work on a pro bono basis.

Governments, policymakers and business leaders are raving about IndiaStack. iSPIRT volunteer Tanuj Bhojwani, an IIT graduate and a Young India Fellow of Ashoka University, recalls that when tech evangelist Nandan Nilekani made a presentation on IndiaStack to Governors of central banks of various countries during a meeting of the Bank of International Settlements (BIS), the members said they were keen to set up similar platforms.

A BIS study on IndiaStack established that India’s achievements in financial inclusion between 2011 and 2017 were of exceptional. Had India solely relied on traditional GDP-per-capita growth, it would have taken 47 years for India to get to a stage where 80 per cent of adults had a bank account. As the catalyst that made this possible, IndiaStack had helped India “leapfrog” over traditional developmental processes, it noted.

iSPIRT began in 2013 with the backing of some 30 software companies, and has since then charted its own course, helping entrepreneurs launch software product start-ups. Sharma, who headed the R&D operations of in India, was first associated with software services' industry body NASSCOM as a co-chair and executive council member between 2009 and 2013. During his tenure there, he realised that there was no independent industry think tank to advance the cause of the software product industry. Compared to the software services industry, which had giants like Infosys and Wipro, the software product industry was in its infancy and needed a push to get it off the ground. That’s when iSPIRT was born.

No glory, no greed’

Sharma says that one reason for iSPIRT’s success is that volunteers don’t take credit for any of their work; nor do they accept money. “We are like Wikipedia in some ways.” (Or like the volunteer who rustles up the halwa at the langar!). “We base our policy on a no-glory no-greed philosophy, which works fine for everyone,” he says.

The people behind the market adoption of UPI such as iSPIRT volunteer Sudhanshu Aggarwal and, before him, Nikhil Kumar, are self-effacing to a fault. Technically skilled volunteers like Pramod Varma and Sanjay Jain helped architect IndiaStack. “In India, governments create digital public infrastructure because the average Indian trusts them, rather than someone in the private sector. However, the government does not have enough people with the skill sets required to do so. Hence, we help with the heavy lifting,” points out Sharma. That’s the spirit with which iSPIRT volunteers helped the National Payments Corporation of India think through critical elements of UPI design and architecture.

UPI is arguably the most popular component of IndiaStack right now. Even Silicon Valley giant Google has recommended it to the US Federal Reserve as a model real-time payment system. UPI’s popularity can be gauged from the fact that in August 2016, it was doing about 100,000 transactions a day, and in just three years, the number of transactions scaled up to 1 billion.

India’s domestic payment system does more transactions than American Express does worldwide. “The reason for UPI’s success is that with interoperability and real-time settlements, risk in the payment system is reduced and convenience is increased for everyone. The charges for merchants are low — and even that is hugely subsidised. Even transfers of as low as ₹100 to a merchant don’t pinch,” explains Bhojwani.

Sharma says that the bar to become a volunteer at iSPIRT is set very high. As an indicator of the people with high profiles who do make it, he cites Sanjay Jain and Lalitesh Katragadda, both of whom worked with Google. Jain gave up a job as product manager at the tech giant to volunteer with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which developed Aadhaar. After his stint at UIDAI, he became a volunteer at iSPIRT. Katragadda was a founder at one of the first companies acquired by Google, and till 2014 he was Country Head, India Products, for Google. “All of us gave up good jobs at multinationals and decided we wanted to build something tangible for India,” says Sharma, who has also worked at Lucent Technologies and Symantec.

Even given the high bar, there has lately been a rich influx of young volunteers into iSPIRT; they evidently prioritise volunteering here over higher education in the West. “In some ways, it is tougher to become an iSPIRT volunteer than to secure an MBA admission at an Ivy League college. It requires real dedication and commitment,” says Sharma. “We care more about what you bring to the table than what you write on your resume.”

iSPIRT has about 100 volunteers; some of them are full-time volunteers, but most are part-time. Typically, volunteers lend two years of their careers to develop tangible, workable solutions to address India’s challenges. “It is roughly one volunteer for every crore of the Indian population. These volunteers are of high calibre; in return, they get to learn at a scale that is not possible elsewhere,” says Sharma.

Access to institutional credit

The next challenge that IndiaStack plans to address is to help small vendors gain access to credit from institutional channels rather than from moneylenders. “If we can get private players to lend money to a vegetable vendor and still make money, we know we have been successful. The way we approach this problem is to build digital public infrastructure that allows such loans at scale — not for one vegetable vendor, but tens of millions of them.” The idea of securing credit for the poor is not novel; what is novel is the scale of operations that IndiaStack enables. “If we don’t do more loans in a quarter than what microfinance players have done in 20 years, we will consider ourselves unsuccessful,” he says.

This isn’t just bluster. This confidence is born of the fact that iSPIRT has been able to build digital public infrastructure at a scale that was not possible earlier. More so, when you know that it is all built by a group of high-calibre volunteers who have given up thriving careers to contribute to nation-building. It is this hunger for quality and scale with its heart in the right place that sets the volunteers behind IndiaStack apart from the rest.

And that sense of commitment is sweeter than any halwa anywhere.

Published on March 09, 2020

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