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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Gridlock



Judging by the calls I get from telemarketers, the faceless machinery behind such pesky calls has access to a lot of information about me. Most of them address me by name, and are also aware of which credit cards I hold, who I bank with, where I shop and so on. The aforementioned faceless machinery is obviously working for a profit motive, hoping to sell their products and services by making a cold call to someone less irritable than me. And the information is available to them at a price, facilitated by automation of almost all functions that come into play into my dealings with the world around me.

Cut to today’s news – Natgrid or National Intelligence Grid (NIG) is gridlocked in inter-ministerial turf battles. Envisaged as a centralized data bank, with data with inputs from 21 agencies and departments of government, it is meant to provide readily accessible data to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The data is to include PAN card, voter ID card and ration card details, income tax returns, degrees obtained from schools and colleges, bank account numbers, financial transactions, travel documents, passport details, police stations and jails across the country among others. The idea is to establish metrics that will determine suspicious activities that would trigger alerts instigating closer investigations of those activities. This will, it is hoped, nip terrorist attacks in the bud.

The proposal, after 18 months of ground work and preparations, is still stuck up for want of a consensus between key ministries.  As per the newspaper reports, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee objected to the proposal of NatGrid on the grounds that it will violate the privacy law. Defence minister AK Antony reportedly expressed reservations contending that the system of Joint Intelligence Committee, where all top notch intelligence agencies share information, was working satisfactorily.

Mr Mukherjee – what privacy law? If these laws can be flouted so openly and impudently by every two bit telemarketing company, why can’t they be legally over-ridden to ensure safety of citizens from possible terror attacks? And Mr Antony, the working of the current system of information / intelligence sharing is being showcased by the repeated embarrassments on the ‘most wanted’ list issue. Something of prime national importance like a list of wanted terrorists being forwarded to Pakistan, accused of harbouring them, includes under-trials residing in the country? A round robin of blame game, finger pointing and covering substantially oversized backsides? Is that what we call functioning satisfactorily?

This is not to say that NIG is the silver bullet – that once it comes up, such lapses will be eliminated forever. Nor are the concerns of invasions of privacy unfounded. But the point is that steps which can work towards reducing the possibility of such lapses are being opposed for the very reasons that cause them – petty turf politics. Possibly it is feared that the NIG will become a prima donna amongst the plethora of intelligence agencies. Also, information which is currently both a source and currency for power play between them will become freely available – no longer a valuable commodity to be horded and bartered.

As regards privacy, the organization cannot be aborted citing fears of loss of privacy or misuse of provisions that empower it. It is the same argument that, combined with political expediency, was used to do away with TADA. If the possibility of misuse of a law, an instrument, or any system, is reason enough to avoid it altogether, then the Indian Penal Code should be scrapped tomorrow -I doubt if there is a single law in it that has not been misused. The police force should be disbanded, and phone tapping under any circumstances should be banned. While there is scope for misuse in each of these, and there are adequate instances of the same – the way out is to put watertight safeguards and accountability into place. The same should be done in the case of NIG.

The idea of setting up the NIG was mooted in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, when national outrage was at an all time high, and there was demand from all quarters for adequate preventive measures against such attacks ever taking place again. Now that we are ‘attack free’ for the past 2 ½ years, complacency seems to have set in again. One only hopes it will not take another jolt of horrendous proportions to galvanize the decision makers into action.

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