June 4, 2017 2:30 pm JST
Nikkei Asia Prizes 2017

Indian entrepreneur, Taiwanese virologist, Pakistani foundation honored

Asia's health and welfare innovators awarded for weaving better safety net in the region

TSUBASA SURUGA, Nikkei staff writer

From left, Nandan Nilekani, Michael Ming-Chiao Lai, and Faisal Edhi from Edhi Foundation appear at the awards ceremony for the 22nd Nikkei Asia Prizes in Tokyo on June 4.

TOKYO -- The architect of India's biometric national identification system, a Taiwanese virologist and Pakistan's social and welfare foundation were recipients of the annual Nikkei Asia Prizes in Tokyo on Sunday.

Now in the 22nd year, the awards are given to individuals and groups in Asia that have made significant contributions to the region's development.

Nandan Nilekani, former chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, was awarded the economic and business innovation prize for his achievement in leading the development of the country's biometric identification system Aadhaar, in which every citizen there is given an ID number tied to a photo, fingerprint and iris scan.

Speaking at the award ceremony, Nilekani said social welfare was a high priority for the Indian government, but it had long lacked the means to accurately identify much of the country's huge population. "The lack of a proper ID system meant that, in every welfare scheme, there were a lot of ghost and duplicate beneficiaries, leading to fraud, corruption and wastage."

The work began in 2009, when Nilekani, co-founder of India's major IT company Infosys, was invited by then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to head the government project. Since the first ID was issued in 2010, over 1.1 billion people have been registered, making Aadhaar one of the world's largest biometric ID databases.

"This experience has convinced me that a lot of challenges in developing countries can be solved at speed and scale in a sustainable way, by using technology wisely and built in a way that society can take advantage," Nilekani said.

Surprising result

Michael Ming-Chiao Lai, distinguished research fellow at Taiwan's Academia Sinica, won the science and technology prize. Lai's research on coronavirus -- the cause of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome -- helped explain much of the mechanism and develop control measures for disease, which sent Asia into a panic in 2003.

But coronavirus, named because its shape resembles the sun's corona, was not known to cause significant diseases in humans and "was ignored by mainline scientific communities then," Lai said during his remarks. Despite the lack of medical urgency, Lai and his team put great efforts into studying the virus.

His achievement also came as a surprise to himself. "Several years later one day, I was shocked to learn that SARS ... was caused by a coronavirus," Lai said while looking back at the dawn of the outbreak. SARS infected more than 8,000 people and killed nearly 800. By July 2003, the virus was declared contained because of Lai's advice.

In his acceptance speech, Lai stressed that the event validates the importance of fundamental research. "In retrospect, I am thankful that the governments in the U.S. and Taiwan continually supported my research even when my laboratory appeared to be yielding only 'useless' academic information."

Lai reminded the audience that research in viruses is an ongoing, collective effort, pointing at the examples of pandemic influenza, Ebola and the spread of Zika virus in recent years. "The control of infectious diseases requires regional cooperation," he said, "because viruses know no national boundaries and travel without passport."

Equal welfare

This year, the culture and community prize went to Pakistan's Edhi Foundation in honor of its wide social welfare charity helping people irrespective of religion, race and social class. Founded by Abdul Sattar Edhi in 1951, what started as a small free clinic is now the world's biggest non-governmental welfare organization.

The Edhi Ambulance Control Room in Karachi receives 3,500 calls a day. Starting a free ambulance service in 1957 with one vehicle, today a total of 1,800 ambulances operate across the country. The foundation also searches for missing people, provides shelters for orphans and seniors, and runs mortuaries.

Back in 1947, when Pakistan separated from India, most charities were exclusive to specific communities or religions. Abdul Sattar, who died last July, resolved to create one that would not discriminate. To avoid political influences, the foundation does not accept government and overseas charities.

"We are proud to run all of these activities with the local support of the Pakistani people," said Faisal Edhi, the son of Abdul Sattar and current head of the foundation.

The Nikkei Asia Prizes were created in 1996 to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Nikkei Inc.'s main Japanese language newspaper. Past winners include Manmohan Singh, who won in 1997 before becoming the Indian prime minister, and Bangladeshi social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus, who was honored in 2004 and went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for pioneering the concept of microfinance.

For more information on the award and past winners, visit:

http://www.nikkei-events.jp/asiaprizes/en/index.html

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