As terror struck Mumbai on 13/7, 13 July and Delhi on 7/9, 7 September debate over India’s lack of counter terrorism preparedness rages not just in television studios but also in cafes and nukkads so typical of the metro culture in the country. Many have vaunted how the United States has successfully avoided a terrorist attack and how India has failed to do so. One establishment which has received some debate is National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID). Many feel that if such a grid was in place Mumbai and Delhi would have been avoided. Three issues would be relevant and need discussion in this context.
Firstly is NATGRID an essential component of a counter terrorism mechanism at the national level, secondly would a functional NATGRID have avoided 13/7 and finally will we ever have a NATGRID given resistance in certain influential quarters?
From the purely professional point of view, the relevance of NATGRID as a mechanism for synergy for intelligence and a trigger for precision operations is undisputed. NATGRID when fully established will link 21 data bases accessible to 11 agencies thereby facilitating real time tracking of inputs to include personal transactions such as travel, banking and insurance. The data is available even today but is difficult to retrieve even by intelligence agencies due to distributed location in data silos of banks, air lines or insurance companies. The basic purpose of NATGRID will be to track exceptional transactions thereby facilitating identification of unusual activity by individuals or groups placing them on watch or where such information is time sensitive even lead to arrest.
Coming on to the second issue will NATGRID have avoided 13/7. The answer is yes and no. Yes, if the grid had been fully functional over a period time. This would have led to focused information and operations to target the leadership, financial infrastructure and modules of banned organizations such as SIMI or its more violent avatar the Indian Mujahedeen. But will it have generated better intelligence on possibility of the serial blasts the answer may not be as clear.
It is obvious that the group which has carried out this strike has successfully remained below the horizon of intelligence agencies that were tracking various terror modules in the country be it the Intelligence Bureau at the national level or the Anti Terrorism Squads at the local. A series of firewalls have been possibly used between the cells or suspects which should be normally under surveillance and those who laid the bombs, thereby increasing the degree of difficulty of collecting information and alerting the local police. Thus a NATGRID may not have really provided specifics of 13/7 though a general warning may have been generated.
Information and intelligence of such attacks is best obtained locally if the local CB CID and beat police are alert and are able to pick up unusual movement of persons or activity or raise alarm of unattended objects lying in public places. There were inherent challenges of density of population in these locations, but a sensitized police and public would not have allowed the situation to have come to a pass by building deterrence through alertness. Thus it is obvious that the Mumbai cop as well as citizen has a long way to go before the maximum city can rid itself of terror. The relevant point however is NATGRID cannot overcome gaps in local information and intelligence collection.
Finally the question of whether India will ever have a NATGRID given resistance in various quarters including if media reports are to be believed banks who are required to be the first to share data. Security sector reforms in India are in the first phase of implementation which follows the cycle of conception, debate, dissemination, acceptance and execution. Post 26/11 a number of reforms to counter terrorism was proposed. Those that followed the accepted philosophy such as enhancing first responder effectiveness or strengthening multi agency centers have been implemented. The UIAD has also taken off well as it is an extension of the proposal for national ID cards by the NDA government. Others as NATGRID or National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) are languishing because these are in the debate and dissemination stage while the government has already gone in for implementation. It is therefore unlikely that progress will be smooth or speedy.
The second resistance to NATGRID is likely to be due to disclosure of all individual transactions. Apart from privacy there are genuine concerns of use of such data for political purposes. These fears cannot be wished away, given legacy of use of agencies for collection of political intelligence as much as for operational or criminal. The bureaucratic challenge of resistance to sharing is another grey area which will have to be tackled.
But all is not lost for NATGRID. Firstly we are entering an era of greater transparency, thus over the next decade or so sharing information publicly particularly by those who want to occupy positions of power is likely to become a norm. This may drive away fear of Home Ministry having access to information of every bit of your past. Secondly as reforms move forward, there will be greater acceptance of instruments as NATGRID as essential mechanisms for synergy not only to counter terrorism but also for normal public transactions. The process will thus be evolutionary as most reforms even in the military are. Thus present resistance to NATGRID need not make us skeptical of its implementation.