NATGRID languishes on backburner: 11 years on, India's one-stop data centre to tackle terror threats yet to become operational

  • In December 2009, the Ministry of Home Affairs had announced the setting up of the NATGRID, which was tasked to combine the intelligence from more than 20 different databases.

  • India has around a dozen agencies tasked with intelligence, which ranges from domestic and foreign intelligence services to financial and military intelligence agencies.

  • The NATGRID is also supposed to collect and keep all data on previous intelligence alerts so that these could be assessed to verify similar links when a fresh intelligence alert is issued.

Have we forgotten the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID)? This ambitious project was set up by the previous UPA-led government after the 2008 Mumbai tragedy? India’s financial capital, Mumbai, had remained under siege for three days when 10 Pakistan-based terrorists made their way to the city and killed innocent people at iconic locations. India’s heavily bureaucratised national security apparatus had come under severe criticism because of the unprofessional manner in which the crisis was handled by various stakeholders.

One of the primary reasons behind the Mumbai terror attacks was the inability of various security agencies to share vital information and inputs available with them. The NATGRID was therefore envisioned as a unified database that would compile a wide variety of currently available intelligence inputs. The project was conceived to be completed in two years timeframe. It has been 11 years, and the wait continues.

 NATGRID languishes on backburner: 11 years on, Indias one-stop data centre to tackle terror threats yet to become operational

(File) A member of the anti-terrorist squad runs in front of the burning Taj Mahal hotel during a gun battle in Mumbai on 29 November, 2008. Reuters

As informed by the Ministry of Home Affairs in the Lok Sabha on 19 November, the project will be operational by 31 December, 2020. The Minister of State for Home, G Kishan Reddy, told that “NATGRID has developed application software for proof of technology (POT) which is yet to be fully rolled out. NATGRID solution is planned to go live by 31.12.2020.”

During the current financial year, ₹84.80 crore has been allocated to the project. However, the inordinate delay in the full operationalisation of the NATGRID ends up bolstering the long-held claims about India’s lack of strategic vision to carry out much-needed systemic reforms in the security sector.

India has around a dozen agencies tasked with intelligence, which ranges from domestic and foreign intelligence services to financial and military intelligence agencies. Before the 26/11 terror attacks, India’s each intelligence agency had its own database that largely worked in isolation. Given India’s notoriously sluggish bureaucratic culture and the usual tendency of intelligence agencies to remain secretive, it has not been easy to communicate or gather information from other intelligence agencies.

The NATGRID is being projected as a transformative tool for security agencies to obtain relevant information on terror suspects from various data providing organisations such as banks, telecommunications companies, railways and airlines, immigration department, motor vehicle department, income tax department, NCRB and SEBI. The aim is to enable the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to reduce the number of terrorist incidents as they become able to identify, capture and prosecute terrorists in a more efficient manner.

The NATGRID is also supposed to collect and keep all data on previous intelligence alerts so that these could be assessed to verify similar links when a fresh intelligence alert is issued. Clearly, the importance of the project lies in the fact that it increases the possibility of potential terrorists getting caught — acting as deterrence to terrorist activities in the longer run. We have been told that it has acquired some of the world’s most advanced data-mining software that can be used to track and potentially predict terrorist attacks.

In December 2009, the Ministry of Home Affairs had announced the setting up of the NATGRID, which was tasked to combine the intelligence from more than 20 different databases for “quick, seamless and secure access to desired information for intelligence/enforcement agencies”. But the NATGRID’s journey has been long and painful as it has caught in a whirlpool of delays and controversies.

In 2011, funds for the project were approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh publicly claimed that the NATGRID “is being implemented so that intelligence from various sources can be accessed and analysed to identify actionable points” to help counter threats to public safety.

In June 2012, the CCS approved around ₹1000 crore for the implementation of the project. However, despite the funding approval, the project lost the initial steam when P Chidambaram was shifted from the MHA to the Ministry of Finance.

With renewed interest in the project, then Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde placed the foundation stone of the NATGRID’s Data Centre and Main Office building at New Delhi in December 2013. He explained: “The NATGRID is a crucial initiative that will help plug our vulnerabilities by upgrading and enhancing our capability to detect and respond to such threats at the earliest possible time.” But the change in regime in Centre after 2014 General Elections negatively impacted the NATGRID’s fortunes.

The project got stalled for a long period. With the change in priorities and orientation, the NATGRID was moved to the back burner. The new government did not renew CEO Raghu Raman’s contract in June 2014, forcing the NATGRID to remain headless for two long years.

The project gathered steam once again in June 2016 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi reviewed the NATGRID’s progress. Ashok Patnaik, an additional director in the Intelligence Bureau, was appointed its CEO. Patnaik, a Gujarat cadre officer, is the husband of Daman Singh, daughter of Manmohan Singh. Another review meeting was held in August 2016 by then Union home minister Rajnath Singh who expressed satisfaction with its progress, while directing the NATGRID to induct the best available talent in the field of IT and cryptology for robust security framework.

By early 2017, the government reported that NATGRID was likely to become operational by September 2018. But continued problems kept the project from being operationalised.

Recruitment of qualified staff is another nagging aspect which is hampering NATGRID’s progress. The MHA had informed a parliamentary panel in March 2017 that it was unable to recruit qualified experts for NATGRID. Once again, the MHA has told the Lok Sabha on 19 November that “Against 119 sanctioned government posts, a total of 53 officers are presently in position; whereas against 123 contractual posts, 21 consultants have been deployed.” Non-utilisation of funds is also a problem. The NATGRID had got a budgetary allocation of Rs 45.57 crore in 2017-18 but it could spend only Rs 22.77 crore.

The reports last year suggested that the NATGRID would become partially functional around the 10th anniversary of the 26/11 attacks, and fully functional in March 2019. Both these deadlines passed but nothing happened. Writing in the special issue of Indian Police Journal in December 2018, then Union home minister wrote that NATGRID would be implemented by June 2019.

Now, we will have to wait until the end of 2020. However, it must be hoped that the NATGRID is silently moving from the development stage to the operational phase in order to transform India’s counter-terrorism apparatus. The gestation period of the project has been unusually long though. Despite avoidable delays, turf-wars and slashed budgets, the government’s continued engagement clearly shows that the NATGRID is vital for strengthening India’s national security and counter-terrorism efforts.

We are reminded by Michael Hayden, a former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in his latest book, The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies that every intelligence system or agency “has an obligation to protect government secrets” because “relegating counterintelligence to orphan status increases the odds of dangerous foreign penetrations...” There have been many concerns regarding the dangers of leakage or misuse of the system, leading some experts to term the NATGRID as “security nightmare”.

The unified pooling of vital information from different resources is particularly vulnerable to cyber attacks or espionage from foreign intelligence agencies. In view of the latest controversy regarding data breach of mobile phones of some Indians through the snooping software on the messaging platform, WhatsApp, by an Israeli cybersecurity firm, this apprehension needs to be addressed by having proper checks and balances in place.

Lord Acton had famously prophesied that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. This danger is more acute when the power is secretly wielded. Efforts to maintain accountability over intelligence agencies has often proved difficult. After all, intelligence agencies are comprised of human beings, with their functions being circumscribed by human flaws, frailties and imperfections. Thus, safeguards are inevitable.

In order to mitigate privacy-related concerns, it is important to ensure that elaborate mechanism are put in place to prevent intelligence and security agencies to access the NATGRID database for getting information for any other purpose than that of countering terrorism and transnational organised crimes.

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Updated Date: Nov 21, 2019 15:15:54 IST