NIA & UAPA: How effective?

UPA's repackaged terror law based on POTA will be as ineffective in preventing, pre-empting or combating terror

Rakhi Chakrabarty Delhi

The Mumbai terror attack did what at least 20 serial blasts and terror strikes across the country before it couldn't. The Congress, which had revoked the POTA, brought back the "draconian" law in a repackaged form.    

In about two weeks of taking charge as the Union Home Minister, P Chidambaram, succeeded in getting the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) amended with harsher provisions similar to the POTA. Among them are: detention without bail for up to 180 days instead of 90 days, police custody of an accused can be obtained up to 30 days instead of 15 days. And, life imprisonment for those involved in terror acts. However, the amended UAPA has left out the provision of treating confessions before police as evidence. A bill to create a National Investigation Agency (NIA) has also been passed in the Parliament on December 17.

Though Shivraj Patil pushed for a federal agency, he couldn't succeed as most states did not give their consent. Law and order is a state object. The states feared that a federal agency will allow the Centre to meddle. The Mumbai attack changed all that. All parties agreed on a federal agency to snuff out terror. Thus, the NIA was conceived. It is perceived to become what the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is to the US. 

Security experts feel the NIA adds to the long list of existing central agencies responsible for gathering intelligence and investigate federal crimes. Unless it has a mandate to act to prevent or pre-empt terrorists, it would not have much relevance. For an investigative role in terror crimes, the CBI could well have been upgraded. 

Security experts reckon a holistic approach is imperative to combat terrorism. That includes gathering and collating actionable intelligence, coordination and integration of functions of various states and central agencies and, finally, an investigating agency to probe the terror crimes. It would do well to remember that there is a slew of unsolved terror attacks, like the Mecca Masjid blast in Hyderabad, Samjhauta Express blast, Jaipur serial blasts, etc. Says Prakash Singh, former DG, BSF: "The NIA is ill-conceived. It is a new agency, which would take about three to four years to become operational. We just don't have that much time. By the time the NIA is fully functional, the terrorists would have prepared for more strikes."

The NIA would need time to put its office, infrastructure, vehicles, communication equipment and manpower in place. Only then it can become functional. But intelligence inputs claim that around 600 trained terror operatives are underground, lying in wait. They are reportedly in a state of preparedness and can strike terror in a short notice.

Faced with such a situation, a set-up is required which can swing into action in a couple of months, feel security experts.  An ex-DG, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), feels a new agency will add to the confusion: "There are already scores of central agencies which are non-functional. The NIA cannot function on its own. It would require constant support by existing agencies to gather intelligence in order to prevent and combat terror."

The central agencies suffer from a severe manpower crunch. The Intelligence Bureau (IB), responsible for domestic intelligence gathering, is drawing flak for its failure in getting actionable intelligence. In October, the government sanctioned recruitment of 6,000 personnel in the IB to add to its existing 25,000 strength. The process is expected to be completed by next year. Currently, the IB has only 3,500 field personnel gathering intelligence for a population of 1.2 billion. The CBI and the Enforcement Directorate are also hamstrung given the shortage of manpower.     

So is the story in other states. The police-population ratio in India is 126 per 100,000. Compare this to western nations where the ratio is between 225 and 500 per 100,000. In the Indian Police Service (IPS), there is on an average 17 per cent deficit in cadre strength.

That is one reason why India has failed to build a national anti-terrorism database. Agencies seem more keen on supplying information to political bosses, than establishing effective coordination. Insiders admit there is lack of coordination between the military intelligence, the IB and Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) on counter-terrorism. Some state police chiefs admit that the daily inputs sent by the IB and its subsidiary bureaus are often vague, like "weather reports".

To resolve this problem, the Centre had set up the Multi Agency Centre (MAC) and the Joint Task Force on Intelligence (JTFI) under the aegis of the IB in 2001. This was based on recommendations of the Girish Chandra Saxena Committee Report on Intelligence Reforms. The MAC collects intelligence related to terrorist outfits sponsoring them. But the efficacy of these agencies has been eroded because of acute staff shortage and lack of infrastructure, among other things.

Though law and order is a state subject, the preparedness of states to tackle terror is abysmal. Their intelligence units have long been shorn of importance. They are a dumping ground for men who have fallen out of favour with the powers that be. Peopled with disgruntled personnel, these units have been rendered dysfunctional. Even Mumbai Police, which has suffered the scourge of terror, was found terribly ill-equipped when 26/11 happened.

So what has the NIA achieved? By repackaging the POTA and introducing it in the garb of an amended UAPA, the Congress has tried to achieve two political goals: get the opposition off its back, and not offending its political constituency, especially with general elections not far away.