The former CEO of the public policy think tank of the Government of India, National Institution for Transforming India, or NITI Aayog, Amitabh Kant stepped down on June 30, 2022. His tenure was extended three times before the government expressed interest in bringing a new shift in the NITI Aayog’s approach and a greater focus on social sector schemes and redistribution measures.
Kant was appointed CEO on February 17, 2016, and oversaw several high-profile projects, including the Aspirational Districts Program, National Monetization Pipeline, Aspirational District Program, Production Linked Incentive Scheme, Asset Monetization, and Transformative Mobility, among others. Kant served as the Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion Secretary prior to his transfer to the NITI Aayog. Additionally, he served as the chief executive for the Delhi–Mumbai Industrial Corridor project, and he was the one who came up with the “Incredible India” campaign.
He graduated from St. Stephen’s College with a degree in economics and Jawaharlal Nehru University with a master’s degree in international relations. Kant has also received the Sir Edmund Hillary Fellowship from the Prime Minister of New Zealand. In 1980, he enlisted in the Kerala cadre of the Indian Administrative Service. He has also authored three books: Branding India: An Incredible Story, The Path Ahead: Transformative Ideas for India, and Incredible India 2.0: Synergies for Growth and Governance.
The Modi administration extended his term for a third time in 2021, this time by one year, till June 2022, after the first extension till June 30, 2019, and the second time till June 2021.
Kant will be succeeded by Parameswaran Iyer, a former IAS officer from the 1980 batch of Uttar Pradesh Cadre. Iyer voluntarily left the Indian Civil Services in 2009. In the same year, Iyer was appointed as the World Bank’s manager of water resources. In 2016, he became the Secretary of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. Iyer has also worked for the UN as a senior specialist in rural water sanitation. He became Secretary of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation in 2016 and oversaw the nationally launched Swachh Bharat Mission and the Jal Jeevan Mission, which aims to provide piped water supply to all households by 2024 through integrated grassroots water supply management.
Digital Payment Ecosystem
Considering Kant’s legacy and contributions as head of NITI Aayog, Iyer has pretty big shoes to fill in. For instance, Kant led a high-level panel to examine all potential digital payment methods across sectors after being sworn in to transition to a more cashless economy. According to NITI Aayog, this committee would find and implement user-friendly digital payment methods in all economic sectors as soon as possible.
In order to promote the quick adoption of digital payment systems and aid in the quick transition to the cashless, digital payments economy across all states and sectors, the committee would also regularly engage with central ministries, regulators, state governments, district administration, local bodies, trade, and industry associations, etc.
To make sure that about 80% of Indian transactions transfer to the digital-only platform, a framework for implementation was established and monitored with stringent deadlines.
A year later, at the NDTV-Mastercard Cashless Bano India, Kant stated that India’s digital payments infrastructure was at the time five years ahead of the United States. He was astounded by the fin-tech industry’s pace of innovation as well as the number of digital options available to Indians today, like UPI.
Due to the increasing use of smartphones due to network penetration, the fairly widespread availability of biometrics among Indians, and the likelihood that it was the only nation with a unified payments interface, this initiative alone transformed India from one of the largest informal economies in the world to a country supporting digital payments.
India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) had 330 banks participating as of June 2022, and it had recorded 5.86 billion monthly transactions totaling INR10,14,384 crore.
Fostering the Startup Culture
Under Kant’s leadership, NITI Aayog has also given the Indian startup ecosystem greater momentum, which has led to a notable expansion of the startup ecosystem in India over the past several years, particularly with the introduction of the government’s “Startup India” project. The number of these startups has also clearly shifted from Tier 1 cities to Tier 2 cities, indicating that innovation is increasingly taking a pan-Indian approach.
A growing young population that embraces fast-paced technology, an ambitious consumer market, the expansion of the investment-active middle-class and upper-middle-class segments, and India’s continued support for “Frugal Innovation” are some of the key drivers of the Indian startup ecosystem.
The government has also devised an action plan for startups, including establishing a new portal that allowed private organizations, particularly startups, to leverage public data from multiple ministries for innovation and the development of sector-specific solutions. Startups can employ artificial intelligence (AI) and data to address problems unique to India. Moreover, in order to help entrepreneurs obtain patents, NITI Aayog also assembled a team of attorneys from several patent offices. A startup hub has also been set up to help, support, and guide startups. NITI Aayog had also organized multiple funding events targeted at renewing funding for the Modi government’s Startup India scheme, thus enhancing the ease of doing business in India.
The country’s startup figure rose from double digits to tens of thousands as a result of Kant’s radical reforms. Even the development of unicorns at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic has been quite impressive. Speaking at a FICCI Ladies Organization (FLO) event in March, Kant added that there are currently 81 unicorns and more than 61,000 startups in India. In May, after receiving US$50 million from IIFL, the Bengaluru-based neo-banking startup Open became the nation’s 100th unicorn.
Kant also took a keen interest in ensuring women-based startups grew in prominence in recent years, to promote women’s empowerment as well as act as a catalyst for socio-economic transformations. He asserted that women-owned firms and enterprises are rapidly becoming the next major disruption in the Indian startup ecosystem and are already playing a significant role in society.
Kant was also a proponent of the notion that innovation stems from the nurtured minds of young students. Therefore, as part of the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM), the government, in collaboration with NITI Aayog built 500 tinkering labs in schools in 2016 and a considerable number of incubators at the college level in an effort to encourage the spirit of innovation in the youngest citizens. Another aspect of the project was making sure the IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) have research labs.
In the following year, an additional 1,500 schools were chosen by NITI Aayog to implement the Atal Tinkering Labs (ATLs) program. Last December, with the goal of empowering innovators and entrepreneurs across the country, NITI Aayog launched a first-of-its-kind Vernacular Innovation Program (VIP), which will provide innovators and entrepreneurs in India with access to the innovation ecosystem in 22 scheduled languages. AIM will train a Vernacular Task Force (VTF) in each of the 22 scheduled languages to develop the required capability for the VIP. Each task force is led by a regional Atal Incubation Center and includes vernacular language instructors, subject matter experts, technical writers, and subject matter experts (AICs). With the help of VIP, Kant plans to minimize the language barrier in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Roadmap to AI Dominance
Under Kant’s supervision, NITI Aayog published National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence (NSAI) as early as June 2018, making India one of the first nations to consider harnessing the emerging technology for social good by addressing inclusion and societal issues. In the document, it was noted that the vast geographic and cultural diversity presents specific developmental problems in the areas of agriculture, smart mobility, and healthcare, all of which might benefit from AI. Therefore, the Indian government anticipated that if the AI solutions were applied to the diverse demographics, they would be applicable elsewhere as well.
The NITI Aayog also mentioned the cloud platform AIRAWAT, which stands for AI Research, Analytics and knoWledge Assimilation plaTform, in their AI Strategy Report.
With a sizable, power-optimized AI computing infrastructure and cutting-edge AI processing, the AIRAWAT is deemed as a cloud platform for big data analytics and assimilation. The Indian government intends to address the issues brought on by limited access to computing resources through AIRAWAT. The government will soon start developing compute infrastructure that is specifically designed for AI to support the computing requirements of Innovation Hubs, International Centers for Transformational AI, and Centres of Research Excellence (COREs).
According to a recent study by Microsoft and the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), the artificial intelligence (AI) market in India is anticipated to grow by 20% over the next five years. The nation is also one of the top three talent markets, producing 16% of the global AI talent pool. These milestones can be thought of as a result of the domino effect that started with the announcement of strategic plans to boost the AI-backed domestic industries.
The incubative environment for startups and AI technologies built by NITI Aayog reforms also helped India strengthen its healthcare industry. With Covid-19 triggering the need for pharmaceutical research, on-spot testing, mental health bots, and more, the healthcare sector was pushed to its limits to cater to the new demands and urgencies. This resulted in numerous success stories for this industry. For instance, a Bengaluru-based Software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform for doctors recently released the mobile version of its AI-powered electronic medical records (EMR) app called “EMR on Mobile.” The app is developed using the same architecture as the company’s premier desktop EMR powered by AI. It can be used to gain access to patients’ information in real-time anywhere.
Doctors in more than 350 cities, including Tier II and Tier III cities, have used the mobile EMR. Further, they can use “EMR on Mobile” to manage both in-person and online consultations across the same pool of patients in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Boosting the EV Market
Under Kant’s leadership, Aayog has been at the forefront of the government’s effort to encourage electric vehicles (EVs) in order to reduce pollution. Aayog was also a major force behind the FAME (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles in India) program, which announced a number of incentives for the EV industry.
One of the major achievements of FAME was the launching of the e-Sawaari India Electric Bus Coalition in December 2021. This was possible due to NITI Aayog’s collaboration with Convergence Energy Service Limited (CESL), World Resources Institute, India (WRI India), and funding from the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI).
The central, state, and city-level government organizations transit service providers, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), financing institutions, and ancillary service providers will be able to share knowledge and their lessons learned on e-bus adoption in India through the e-Sawaari India Electric Bus Coalition. Thus embarking on a new chapter in the electric vehicles market in India along with adherence to India’s decarbonization strategy.
In December last year, Kant stated that the government was attempting to lower the 18% GST on EV batteries at the time. In the end, the GST Council decided that EVs, battery packs and all, will henceforth be taxed at 5%. On June 28 and 29, the Union Finance Minister Sitharaman presided over the 47th meeting of the GST Council in Chandigarh, where the decision was announced.
Kant had previously claimed in February that the government was interested in Tesla manufacturing its cars in India. He explained that there are two different rates of duties in India: one is around 110% for luxury cars, and the other is about 60% for cars made in India. While Tesla is welcome to 110% duty, it will be beneficial for the company if it sets up a manufacturing and assembly plant in India.
Encouraging Data Interoperability
The NITI Aayog introduced the National Data and Analytics Platform (NDAP) for free public usage in the first half of this year. Kant claims that it will house fundamental datasets from multiple governmental organizations and offer analytics and visualization capabilities. Last August, a beta version was made available to a select group of people for testing and feedback.
To ensure that the datasets stored on the platform are curated to the needs of data consumers from different sectors like government, academia, journalism, civil society, and the corporate sector—NDAP will adopt a use-case-based approach. Because all datasets adhere to a uniform schema, NDAP makes integrating datasets and conducting cross-sectoral analysis simple.
On September 1 last year, NITI Aayog officially unveiled Ernakulam Karayogam’s “Clinic on Wheels,” a mobile medical unit. Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd has funded this project as part of its CSR initiatives. The Mobile Medical Facility unit, which is outfitted with cutting-edge medical facilities, would travel to the isolated and coastal villages in the districts of Ernakulam, Alleppey, and Idukki in diagnosing and treating the poor and rural residents right where they live.
Kant has also endorsed cryptocurrencies, stating that they are simply another asset class like bonds, gold, and mutual funds. He argued that because it is a new asset class and a large number of people are using it for transactions, the government would lose money if it did not tax it. He lauded the government’s move to tax cryptocurrency revenues in this year’s budget session.
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