Natgrid: Good idea stuck in a logjam
In 2009 the government came up with the idea to link records related to travel, immigration, bank and financial transactions, among others, to provide intelligence agencies real-time information about a terror suspect. Explaining the logic of Natgrid to Intelligence Bureau (IB) officers on their commemoration day in 2009, the then home minister
P Chidambaram had said, ‘Today, each database stands alone. They do not talk to each other. Nor can the owner of one database access another. As a result, crucial information in one database is not available to other investigating agencies. In order to remedy this lacuna, the central government has decided to set up a system called Natgrid.’ Exactly two years later, in 2011, the national intelligence grid (Natgrid) was approved by the cabinet committee on security (CCS). It was supposed to be up and running by 2013. The project still hasn’t taken off.
An operational Natgrid, for instance, could have intercepted David Coleman Headley, the Pakistani-American terrorist who played a key role in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, when he undertook nine trips to India between 2006 and 2009. His ground work helped 10 terrorists to mount the most audacious terror attack on Indian soil. The Natgrid was supposed to network and mesh together 21 sets of databases to achieve quick, seamless and secure access to desired information for intelligence and enforcement agencies.
The terrorists, in the meanwhile, continue to strike at will. In 2014 alone there have been close to 20 small and big attacks. The government has allocated Rs 2,800 crore for networking of databases and setting up the grid. An attached body of the home ministry, Natgrid has a work force of 70, partly drawn from the government and partly from the corporate sector. The exit of captain Raghu Raman, the chief of Natgrid, after denial of an extension that was approved by the previous cabinet, might further delay the project. Raman was handpicked by Chidambaram as the chief executive officer (CEO) of the agency. The CCS in 2011 had given the CEO a power equivalent to that of the home secretary. It was no secret that home ministry bureaucrats were unhappy at an ‘outsider’ heading such a prestigious project. Raman had taken voluntary retirement from the army in 1998 and took up assignments in the private sector. He had headed Mahindra Special Services Group before becoming Natgrid CEO.
As soon as Chidambaram moved from the home ministry, Raman ran into problems, says a senior government official associated with the project. Files seeking fund approval sent from Raman’s office to the finance division of the ministry met with objections. As a result the files went to the deputy secretary, from there to the joint secretary, then to the additional secretary and eventually to the home secretary and the home minister, taking an unnecessarily long time. This was a clear violation of the CCS order, which had empowered Natgrid to take decisions on their own, says Gopal Krishna Pillai, who was the home secretary when the project was approved by the CCS.
‘If the CCS had given powers equivalent to that of home secretary to the CEO of Natgrid, why should file be referred back to junior level officials of the rank of deputy or joint secretary,’ queries Pillai. In the last months of UPA-II, the cabinet committee on security approved another extension (for two years) to Raman. ‘The file reached the home minister only on the last day of his office –two months after the cabinet gave its approval,’ adds Pillai. The ACC, naturally, decided to leave the
decision to the new government.
The IB too had its own reservations and insecurities related to the project. Nehchal Sandhu, the head of IB in 2011, reportedly saw the Natgrid as an infringement to its work sphere. Pillai, on the contrary, believes that Natgrid will be more efficient in pulling out information about individuals. ‘Let us suppose the government wants to know when and how often a suspect has travelled to the US and in what all banks he has kept money. IB is certainly capable of doing it. But it might take 30 to 90 days to submit the report. With Natgrid in place, the time will be shortened to a few minutes,’ explains Pillai.
Regarding Natgrid’s capabilities in terms of dealing with intelligence information, Pillai says that the cabinet secretary and national security advisor would do the audit of the kind of queries made through the network. No one else in the organisation would precisely know the origin of the request for information. The nature of job of the Natgrid CEO is such that it has to be headed by a highly skilled technocrat. An intelligence official or a police officer may not be the best person to head Natgrid. Speculations are that a senior official from the IB might be asked to take over as the CEO.
After five years, says Pillai, it would have been natural for the government to merge Natgrid into the IB. In initial days, however, it has to have best people from the technical domain to make the grid into a robust and evolving tool for trailing terror suspects and preventing attacks. A former senior official with IB said that the CEO position should be held by someone insulated from politicians. The vast amount of data collected and processed at Natgrid might be used for wrong reasons. ‘Natgrid is just a tool. It will not directly lead to arrests of terrorists and suspects. Trailing suspects requires months and years of consistent hard work on the ground,’ he noted.
An official from NTRO said the government wants to have seamless sharing of information between intelligence agencies. ‘This is unlikely to happen as every agency has apprehensions about how much they can divulge. Who takes the credit if information shared by one agency is used by another for nabbing a suspect,’ he asked. Moreover, the government hasn’t put any information related to Natgrid in the public domain. There is no clarity about the project’s exact purpose, governance structure, timeline, total outlay, progress, reasons for delay and privacy safeguards. Whether these concerns will be addressed by the new government headed by Narendra Modi, who is keen to carve out internal security division from the home ministry and bring it under his office, remains to be seen.
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