This article has been modified. Please read the clarification at the end.
Fourteen years of tortuous negotiations between the government of India and India's 29 states over the Goods and Services Tax (GST) are almost over. By April 2016, Parliament and state legislatures willing, one of the world's most ambitious tax reforms will get underway, making India a truly integrated common market. Critical to GST's success is a robust information technology (IT) backbone to handle the myriad complex transactions among India's 6.5 million dealers. This is the responsibility of GST Network (GSTN), a quasi-government, not-for-profit company, and Navin Kumar (pictured), its chairman.
In his brief online profiles, Kumar is mostly identified as former chief secretary of Bihar (1975 batch) and as having served in the finance ministry - between 1990-93 as, first, PS to Yashwant Sinha, finance minister in the Chandra Shekhar government, and then in the department of economic affairs under Montek Singh Ahluwalia just as economic reforms began, and in 1999-2004 as joint secretary. This history certainly establishes his credentials as a capable "project manager" for a challenging job involving financial issues and data. But there is more to this low-profile bureaucrat than varied postings at state and Centre (including as Director General of Doordarshan) over a 37-year career suggest.
For one, he won't be in a fog of mystification when it comes to the nitty-gritty of technology that goes into setting up the GST network. Over the past two and a half decades, Kumar has quietly developed a reputation as an IT buff, an interest he self-deprecatingly claims he developed purely as an "amateur" and "out of compulsion".
This interest didn't ride on India's nineties' IT boom but developed in the late eighties, in the less eye-catching ministry of water resources, and later in Sierra Leone, where he took a three-year posting as chief technical advisor (CTA) to a food aid programme funded jointly by the World Food Programme and a Commonwealth institution run by the British government.
The food aid to this West African nation in the form of rice, canned meat and edible oil was distributed to multiple entities such as a school midday meal schemes, nurses training programmes and mother and child health schemes. Donors demanded utilisation certificates to ensure their money was being correctly spent. Kumar's brief as CTA was to ensure reports were collated and the certificates duly delivered.
He started the conventional way by compiling registers but soon found the volume of data was too large to manage. So he consulted a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), specialist who told him he needed to computerise the data. "I thought, okay, I can do that because of my experience in the water resources ministry just before I came to Sierra Leone." There he was national coordinator of an engineer training programme and had been given a laptop to track data.
This was in an era when the desktop was considered a major advancement in computer hardware. "It is was a huge laptop," he recalls, "and although it was portable, I never took it out of the office because it cost Rs 3 lakh and my salary was about Rs 2,000!" He developed some useful knowledge in IT and discovered it was a subject that interested him since he had done a Masters in Physics from Patna University.
In Sierra Leone, he was duly equipped with computers and he started training his team in the spreadsheet program Lotus 123 (another element of ancient IT history). Things progressed well initially but after three months, he realised "with each passing day the computer was working ever so slowly". Having consulted his UNDP colleague again, he was told Lotus 123 would not be able to handle the volume of data his project required and he needed a database program.
This time, he was provided with dBase 4 but was told an expert to explain how it worked wouldn't be available for eight months. So he had his wife mail him a manual on dBase programming, bought from Connaught Place, and took about three months to master the basics. "Then, I wrote a program and retrained the staff. It took another three months to enter the backlog of data and after six months, at the push of a button, we were able to generate all reports and from then on, it became a routine exercise," he says.
Thereafter, he says, he always involved himself in some IT project or the other wherever he went. In the ministries and departments he worked, for instance, he discovered a rich opportunity in computerising the many court cases. In his early noughties' stint in the finance ministry handling external assistance from the EC, the US and Canada, he recalls writing "hundreds of programs". He even found opportunity to hone his skills in Doordarshan, where he says a considerable amount of computerisation was needed for the terrestrial network that linked the state-run channel.
But it was back in Bihar where his acquaintance with the Value Added Tax system (or GST by any other name) began. For a while he served simultaneously as finance secretary and IT secretary. The chief minister, Nitish Kumar, thought he was the ideal man for the job, first, because of his interest in IT and, second, because he was keen to introduce e-governance systems in his state. This Kumar delivered but he is most proud of his work in creating an integrated finance management system so that cash flows, which came in from diverse sources (the central banks, the government and the accountant general's office), could be gauged in real time. When picked to head GSTN in 2013, he had retired and was setting up a Centre for Good Governance in Bihar on the lines of the Andhra institution.
Sitting in cramped temporary offices on the second floor of Janpath Hotel - a shift to a new office complex near T3 is due in March - Kumar and his team have been working at full clip. Several rounds of meetings have been held with IT companies under the aegis of Nasscom, now headed by batchmate and former IT secretary R Chandrashekhar.
The Request For Proposals or RFP document is expected to be ready in March. April 2016 is the target the government has set and Kumar hopes to flag it off before he signs off in May the same year. "There are so many things to do," he says ruminatively but he's confident they'll be done.
His own agenda for a second retirement involves painting, a hobby he's neglected for about 15 years, but his life won't be entirely IT-free. He's started a blog that gives free tutorials on Microsoft Word (www.1wordtut.com). There are already 50 lessons on the site and he says he gets about 1,500 hits a day.
This seems an unwarrantedly peaceful agenda after the excitement of GST. Maybe he plans a new career in politics like his batchmate and former home secretary R K Singh? "I have no interest in politics," he laughs, "I would rather keep myself busy with my hobbies."
Implementing the GST Network by April 2016, which involves integrating 6.5 million dealers across India
Dependent on 29 state chief ministers agreeing to common rates and minimum exemptions quickly
Dependent on Parliament and state legislatures functioning efficiently so that the appropriate legislations - a Constitutuional amendement Bill and the GST Act - are passed. Work cannot begin without these laws in place
With Rs 5,000-crore dues from various governments, IT companies say they want their investment in equipment to be compensated upfront
- Government still to decide whether to fund this investment or ask GSTN to borrow from banks and financial institutions
Joined Indian Administrative Service (IAS) in the Bihar cadre, from State Bank of India, where he worked briefly as a probationary officer
Sub-Divisional Officer of Samastipur where Tarakeshwari Sinha fought and lost a famous by-election to the Janata Party candidate
In central ministry of water resources as national coordinator for an engineers' training programme
In North Block, first as PS to then finance minister Yashwant Sinha under Chandra Shekhar govt; when it fell, he shifted to department of economic affairs under Montek Singh Ahluwalia
Chief technical advisor to World Food Aid programme in Sierra Leone, where he honed his skills in IT
Back in the state, including as head of Bihar state electricity board
Joint Secretary in the finance ministry handling external assistance from EC, UK and Canada
Director General of Doordarshan
Back in Bihar, served as state finance secretary and IT secretary, setting up e-governance systems linking the Common Service Centres in panchayats, computerising treasury operations and setting up a comprehensive public finance management system. Oversaw VAT implementation as principal secretary and retired in 2012 as chief secretary
Appointed chairman of GST Network, a section 25 special purpose vehicle, to implement the Goods and Services Tax. Term ends in May 2016
In an earlier version of this article, Navin Kumar was wrongly mentioned as Pravin Kumar in a few instances. This has been corrected. We regret the error.