Senior Indian officials have cleared a hurdle for a long-awaited electronic database aimed at tracking and preventing terrorist activity. Supporters say the National Intelligence Grid will become a crucial weapon in protecting India from attacks like the 2008 terrorist siege on the city of Mumbai.
India's Cabinet Committee on Security, chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, gave its approval "in principle" for the creation of a proposed National Intelligence Grid.
The project, known widely here in India simply as Natgrid, would knit together separate databases into one massive shared resource of information including items like rail and air travel records, tax returns, credit card purchases, and immigration permits. Eleven of India's security-related agencies would be allowed to access the database to look for suspicious patterns, potentially allowing acts of terror to be prevented.
Ajai Sahni is a counterterrorism expert and the executive director of the South Asia Terrorism Portal in New Delhi. He says such an umbrella database is badly needed in India.
"You cannot run a modern enforcement system, any kind of a counterterrorism program, without proper communications and databases," he said. "You have no idea how many people are picked up and released without proper identification. There is no database to match their profiles with."
While networked databases are considered commonplace in the United States and other countries, India's electronic law-enforcement infrastructure is extremely limited. Police stations in much of the country keep paper copies of records, but there is no real mechanism for different districts to share key information.
The push for a national intelligence database gained urgency after the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008. Many people in India believe it would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, to plan and execute the attacks so effectively if a national intelligence grid had been in place at the time.
The project has been stalled for months, partially amid discussions aimed at ensuring the Natgrid project does not infringe on personal privacy rights.
Although Monday's approval clears one important hurdle, counterterrorism expert Sahni says India's slow bureaucracy is likely to take a long time to execute the Natgrid project.
"The actual implementation of the project is far, far into the future," he said. "Unless there is a completely different orientation, they approach this thing on a war footing, I do not see any dramatic transformations in our capabilities."
The Natgrid project is slated to be part of an organization, also yet to be formed, called the National Counterterrorism Center. The center is to be modeled at least partially on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which coordinates and supervises the work of several other existing government agencies.