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We’ve to guard against Covid apps increasing state power: Nandan Nilekani

Nandan Nilekani has cautioned that contact tracing apps run the risk of increasing state power.

, ET Now|
Last Updated: Jun 02, 2020, 08.36 AM IST
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Nandan Nilekani, Infosys Chairman
Infosys Chairman Nandan Nilekani has cautioned that contact tracing apps run the risk of increasing state power and must be rolled back once normalcy returns. In an interview with ET NOW's Chandra R Srikanth, 65 -year-old Nilekani, who is working on his third book, stressed on the need to protect lives and livelihoods as India loosens the two-month old lockdown to stall the spread of Covid-19. Excerpts:

The government has begun the unlocking, what do you make of India's response (to the pandemic) compared to other countries?
What has happened has happened. There seems to be a systematic plan of opening up. Clearly, we have to do both lives and livelihoods. There have to be measures taken at individual level like masks, hand washing, social distancing as well as at the group level by not having big events. We need to look at how to start things all over again. We are on the right track.

Do you think more should have been done by the government to put cash in the hands of people, stimulate consumption?
Cash in the hands of people is always welcome. India doesn't have the benefit of the US which can run huge deficits. We work within the constraints we have. Whatever we are doing in terms of cash transfers has to be well targeted and reach the right people.

The recent crisis has also raised larger questions on surveillance tech and privacy due to the use of contact tracing apps.
This (Covid-19) has really done something which is unimaginable, I have to know the health of people I am meeting. Health was supposed to be private. This puts a whole new angle on privacy and surveillance. Obviously, for proper containment we will have to understand who is where and if they are following quarantine. It does run the risk of increasing state power and we have to guard against that and treat many of these things as a temporary step that needs to be rolled back once things get back to normal.

(Wipro founder chairman) Azim Premji recently said the agony and deaths faced by migrant workers are an unforgivable tragedy. How can we leverage technology to drive inclusion and build a more equitable society?
One thing we have learnt in this unprecedented situation is the need for resilient systems. In April, 150 million people did 400 million transactions to withdraw money using Aadhaar-enabled payment systems when banks or ATMs didn't function. There are 5 principles (we need to focus on) for resilient (technology) system design: national portability, choice, universality, convenience and high volume-low cost population scale system.

The government has announced the One Nation One Ration Card scheme, which was suggested by a task force led by you in 2011. It has taken so long to be implemented...
The 2011 report met these 5 principles of system design. The idea was ahead of its time and I think at that time the need for this was not fully understood but it is needed now. Sometimes, when you plant ideas for reform, they take many years to fructify but that is the nature of the beast.

There are layoffs... There is talk now that Infosys will restructure and cut down over 1,000 senior roles in the firm? Will it get worse?
Short term is going to be challenging, we need resilience in business. The ability to build a profitable business that generates free cash is a sign of resilience. One of the key things we have realised is that the startup ecosystem is dependent on raising capital. That is well when you have liquidity but then you become really fragile when there are no funds. Infosys generates $2 billion free cash annually and gave a dividend of half a billion this quarter. We need to bring back the notion that you have to be profitable, generate cash flow and fund your own destiny.

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