Should NATGRID, the center of integrated intelligence information, be so secretive?
NATGRID, born after 26/11 terror attack to centralise databases of several intelligence agencies, is out of the ambit of the RTI Act. Now that it will execute contracts and acquire property with taxpayer’s money, shouldn’t it come under RTI?
National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) developed by C-DAC Pune, is a centralised and integrated data base system to monitor details of a potential suspect through his database. These personal details are procured through banks, credit cards, internet, cell phones, immigration, motor vehicle licenses, National Crime Records Bureau, Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) and Income Tax (I-T) Department.
A group of central and state agencies, which collated the information and made it available at NATGRID, accesses these details. It has the ability to provide a complete profile of the suspect’s movements. The government agency called NATGRID has its headquarters in Delhi and was established post the 26/11 Mumbai Terror attack. It aims to nab Headley-like characters by accessing their personal details and nipping terror in the bud.
However, NATGRID, since its inception in 2011 has been caught in a vortex of controversy. As per Intelligence Bureau (IB) reports, its chief executive Raghu Raman, was allegedly involved in personal and professional misconduct involving foreign nationals during his five year tenure because of which his contract was not renewed recently. Considering that he was paid a fat salary of Rs10 lakh odd per month (highest for any babu?) and has a team of 20 or more which is paid between Rs1 lakh to Rs2.5 lakh a month, it is expected that the citizen has the right to know about the public money that is being lavishly spent.
The current financial outlay is Rs1,000 crore for this project so should the public be kept in the dark? Newspapers have recently reported that very little has progressed since 2011 although 70 people have been appointed at various levels.
In June 2011, as soon as NATGRID became operational, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government notified it as ‘exempt organisation’ under Section 24 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Venkatesh Nayak, RTI activist and programme coordinator of National Campaign for Peoples' Right to Information (NCPRI) says, “Even information provided by NATGRID to the central government is out of the RTI ambit under Section 24. Under RTI, it can only furnish information about allegations of human rights violation or allegations of corruption. Even this information has to be approved by the Central Information Commission.”
However, on 14 September 2014, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued a notification through the Official Gazette declaring the Director of NATGRID as an authority competent to execute contracts and assurances of property in the NATGRID on behalf of the President of India (See below).
This implies that the Director’s duties are beyond issues of only security as he is now in-charge of executing contracts and therefore these areas come under the RTI Act.
Nayak says, “…the Gazette notification is clear indication of the fact that the MHA, under which NATGRID falls, thinks it fit to proactively disclose the decision taken for making the Director competent to enter into contracts and assurances on property. Technically, this is proactive disclosure of information for the purpose of Section 4 of the RTI Act.”
“The argument for protecting national security concerns which such organisation deals with is valid no doubt, but Section 24 (of the RTI Act) amounts to overkill as it does not differentiate between non-sensitive information, which may be disclosed without harming any public interest and other kinds of information whose disclosure may be harmful to the public interest,” Nayak added. Thus appealing that NATGRID cannot be a closed secret and have the privilege of completely hiding all information.
What is most curious though is the fact NATGRID does not even have a dedicated website. All other organisations that are exempt from RTI Act and are under the Ministry of Home Affairs have a website. Some examples include the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), National Investigation Agency (NIA), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Border Security Force (BSF), Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) and so on which have put up information about their vision, mission and other activities.
According to Nayak, SSB discloses a wealth of information that falls under Section 4 of the RTI Act such as organisational structure, transfer policy, monthly list of achievements, including arrests and seizures made and believe it or not-the Immovable Property Returns of its senior level officers (since 2011). NATGRID and IB are the only organisations under the Home Ministry without dedicated websites. IB too discloses the total number of RTI applications it receives and the data is published in the annual report of the CIC. “Perhaps this is a calculated move not to provide any intelligence to the citizenry about such organisations,’’ Nayak said.
Vappala Balachandran, columnist in The Sunday Guardian, writes about NATGRID in Wednesday’s column: “I am not sure that NATGRID will prevent incidents like 26/11, because the state police or different defence departments are not mentioned among the 10 ‘user agencies’. As a member of the state government appointed 26/11 enquiry committee, which, however, was not allowed to examine the Central agencies, it is my impression that intelligence pointers already available with some Central agencies were not communicated to the state government or the Navy and Coast Guard. How will NATGRID help if the agencies are not willing to share current intelligence? As for Headley's repeated visits, why did the Intelligence Bureau, which controls the computerised Bureau of Immigration, need NATGRID to tell them this information, which was already with them?”
is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)