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Natgrid can’t save us

india Updated: Jul 15, 2011 22:27 IST
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So it’s official, right from the mouths of the home minister and the prime minister-in-waiting: there’s no foolproof protection against terrorism. It’s an unpalatable truth, but someone had to say it. After this week’s bombings in Mumbai, I found myself wondering if I, a completely untrained person with hazy memories of high school chemistry, could make a fertiliser bomb. Unfortunately, I think I can, with ingredients bought from my local market and a little guidance from anarchist cookbooks which are still found on the internet, despite international concern.

Fortunately, I don’t have the motivation to do it. But unfortunately, the government’s intelligence apparatus is incapable of verifying my motivations. To that extent, P Chidambaram and Rahul Gandhi are being truthful — there is no 100% protection against bombers, in India or elsewhere.

Of course, they could have muscularly said that complete security is possible. The US government promised it to its people after 9/11 and has delivered. There have been no significant, successful attacks on US soil in a decade. But this was achieved at a huge political and social cost. The land of the free now values security over personal freedoms, privacy and human rights. With the Patriot Act in one hand and an assault rifle in the other, the US declared itself the winner of its war on terror after Osama bin Laden was killed, but it has actually lost. Because the conflict turned it into the very thing it used to hate, an unfree nation.

We probably don’t want to go that way, investing in a huge security and strategic apparatus. We’re a poor country, and we would pay an even higher social cost than the US. Fortunately, our political leadership is telling the plain truth. But it’s not the whole truth, because we can improve the odds. Here, I’m not talking about the National Technical Research Organisation or Natgrid, which the home ministry has been pushing. The former is a wiretapper, the latter a network of networks that will connect several information silos, including those holding personal data. They raise serious privacy issues that would tilt the balance of power between the government and the citizen it serves. These have to be discussed and resolved before they are operationalised.

But the key to better preparedness against terrorism lies in initiatives which are far simpler and far less sexy. They have to do with human intelligence and the efficient sharing of investigative information. Two years ago, former national security advisor MK Narayanan had mooted the idea of a Citizens’ Intelligence Network integrated with the police force. And five years ago, the Supreme Court had ruled for police reforms on a suit filed by former Border Security Force director Prakash Singh. Both initiatives have languished for lack of political will.

These two measures would create a professional, capable police force which has eyes and ears everywhere. It would produce human intelligence and share it intelligently and responsibly, capabilities which the intelligence community values highly. It’s important because the first line of defence against attacks on citizens is the policeman on the beat. If he is not capable, no Natgrid can save us. That is the whole truth, which Rahul Gandhi and Chidambaram neglected to mention.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine n pratik@littlemag.com. The views expressed by the author are personal