The ninth terror attack on Mumbai in the past nine years has claimed 17 lives. Each terror attack is followed by glib condolences and public outrage before amnesia grips the nation again.
The only time the government moved with alacrity is after the November 2008 attack that left 166 people dead. P. Chidambaram was moved to the home ministry. Among the most important decisions he took was to create a National Intelligence Grid (Natgrid), which will improve the flow of information to intelligence agencies to help them prevent terror attacks before they threaten the lives of citizens.
The Natgrid project was almost scuttled by privacy activists who live in a world apart from the crowded bylanes of Dadar and Zaveri Bazaar.
Natgrid is nothing more than the linking of existing government databases—those of banks and income tax authorities, to cite two examples. The aim is to use information available on these databases about persons to look for patterns of activity that indicate the possibility of terrorist activity, its planning or support.
The case against Natgrid is based on a flawed premise: that it invades the privacy of citizens. There are two simple arguments against this. Today, data mining to determine patterns of consumption, creditworthiness and habits of Indians is pervasive in the private sector. If anything, this silent business is far more intrusive than any government initiative. There are no protests against this form of invasion of privacy.
More importantly, the danger from not having a sophisticated tool like the Natgrid is that it forces the police to rely on harsh and coercive means to extract information in a crude and degrading fashion. After every terrorist incident, it goes about rounding up suspects, especially Muslims. One needs little imagination to realize what happens to those individuals—most of who are innocent. If, instead, a pattern search and recognition system were in place, these violations of human rights would be much fewer.
The cost of the right to privacy should be measured against the cost of lives lost. Among well-heeled and well-watered New Delhi activists, it seems the former is more important. This attitude is out of place in a terrorist-targeted country such as India. If the government is serious about the threat from terrorist organizations, it should quickly proceed with Natgrid—in all its phases—and let intelligence officials get on with their work.
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