As the Chief Executive Officer of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and the Chairman of the Goods and Services Tax Network (GSTN), Ajay Bhushan Pandey, an Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer from the Maharashtra cadre, has the unique distinction of heading two of the country's biggest IT platform based projects ever. In an exclusive interview with Business Today, the IIT Kanpur Alumni, who also holds a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Minnesota, USA, tells that the initial glitches associated with the GSTN system is hardly anything when compared to what it has achieved so far.
Thanks to your credentials as UIDAI CEO, your appointment as GSTN Chairman is seen as the government's effort to put a battle-worn veteran to fire-fight GSTN's teething problems. How challenging is the task?
My way of looking things is very different. GST is a great thing to happen. GSTN is also a great thing. It's been just five months since it has started functioning. Today we have over 90 lakh dealers coming online to provide the data and file their returns through the GSTN system. Earlier there were 37 systems operated by state VAT departments and Central Excise. Many of them were computerized, many not. Bringing all of them on to one system was a major challenge. To a large extent, in a short span of just five months, GSTN has been able to do it. If, you try to find a parallel; it's hard to find one.
There have been complaints that the system is not working well...
When you create such large systems, you are faced with intra-system issues and people to system issues. Theoretically, 90 lakh people can have 90 lakh unique problems. Each of these problems will have to be addressed. When so many individual problems are to be solved, naturally there will be some difficulties in resolving them. Suppose, all of them tried to file their returns on the same day, the system will come under stress. Further a new system might have some issues. Some of these could be relating to the system or to the behavioural patterns what they have been used to for a long time. All these resulted in teething problems. To say that this system has not been able to deliver is not correct.
In spite of these challenges, system has shown improvement. If you see the broad numbers - total number of returns filed till now is more than 3.1 crore. If we take, for instance, the figures of GSTR-3B as on 2nd December, 52.5 lakh returns for October have been filed in comparison to figures of 2nd November that were about 48 lakhs for the previous month. So in a month almost 4.5 lakh more people have filed their returns. This is a significant improvement. Total number of returns filed in month of November has been 80 lakhs while on 20th November itself more than 18 lakh returns were filed on a single day which is highest number of returns filed in a day so far. Hence, we can infer that system is robust and functioning. And people are finding the system convenient.
So, it has resulted in greater convenience to the people?
Certainly! In the last few meetings of the GST Council, many of the problems faced during the initial period of implementation have been addressed. As for instance, now only big industries are required to file a monthly return. Tax slabs have been reduced; the Committee on Return Filing has been constituted to simplify the filing process.
If you compare with pre-GST scenario, as compared to the percentage of people used to file returns, the present number is much higher than that of pre-GST era. We have started giving refund also. So it is not correct to say that system was not working well. People might have faced some difficulties in the initial phases at few places as they were not used to the new GSTN system.
So the problem was not with GSTN, but with the decisions that complicated things?
No. The GST Council has been very responsive to the problems and issues.
Are you going to increase the capacity of the network?
All I can assure you is the capacity is and will not be a problem. The hardware, the software or whatever it takes will be provided. As of now, I don't see any capacity constraints in the hardware and software. And as we have done in UIDAI also, we always do advance planning and make provisions.
What is the UIDAI lesson you have taken to GSTN?
Both are real time and very large systems involving the entire country. Large systems have to be managed in a manner that people are not put to any inconvenience. Secondly, security is of paramount concern.
People are worried about the redressal system?
When people call our helpdesks, they may not get the required answer in several cases. They have to be then escalated to a higher level where the problems are redressed. We also have a feedback mechanism. We do survey by reaching out to people who have filed or tried to file returns to find out what all difficulties they faced. This is a continuous exercise which will help us improve.
Both GSTN and UIDAI engage lot of private players. Is it anyway compromising the security of the data?
In any large system, we need to get best technologies and engage best agencies regardless of the nature of their ownership. There are legal safeguards and contractual obligations which ensure that the agencies maintain privacy and security of data that they handle.
The question is about compromising data?
There is no question of compromising data. Take the case of UIDAI. So far as the biometric data is concerned, the data is in our possession, we do not give it to anyone. It remains under our own control. Because of our strict vigilance and safeguards, there has not been a single breach into UIDAI system.
Data of 6,000 companies, including UIDAI were on sale on Darknet?
That's also not correct. The only data that was there was the information one provided when it registered for its internet address. All it gives is the address of the organization and the details of the contact person. Is such information secret? It is already there in the public domain. I would reiterate that no Aadhaar data was available on their website.
It is true that we have legislative provisions to punish people who steal data. But that does not rule out the chances of it being misused?
We have strong legislative and technology provisions to ensure security. We also review them continuously and upgrade our defence systems. In UIDAI, we have filed as many as 22 criminal prosecutions during the last one year against those who indulged in illegal activities. These measures deliver a strong message and would deter any potential culprit.
Are other countries interested in India's Aadhaar experiment?
Many countries have visited us to learn about Aadhaar.