Beyond the images of arson and violence flashing on TV last month, residents of Delhi felt the full impact of the protests by the Jat community in Haryana only when there was no water in their taps on the morning of February 22. The protestors had damaged the Munak Regulator and barrages at Khubru and Mandora villages on the Munak canal, which provides two-thirds of the national capital’s water supply. (The rest comes from groundwater and the Yamuna.) Using earth-moving equipment, they destroyed the canal embankment over a length of 150 feet, and then severed the cables holding up the barrage gates, which stopped the flow of water.
The police and the central armed police forces were unable to move the protestors from the site — and the firing resulted in the death of one protestor. After Army columns reached Munak waterworks, the civil administration was able to negotiate with the protestors, who left only at midnight. The regulator and the barrages were guarded by the Army for many days afterward, and it is only recently that several west Delhi neighbourhoods have begun to get their full quota of water from the Munak canal.
While public attention has been directed at the political and administrative failure of the government in dealing with the reservation protests and maintaining law and order, the situation at Munak points to a grave internal security threat to India’s critical national infrastructure (CNI). The obvious question: if a bunch of protestors could so easily stop the only major source of external water supply to the national capital, what can a more determined and better prepared “non-state actor” achieve?
Delhi’s vulnerability has now been signalled globally, and would not have gone unnoticed by those who sent terrorists to attack the police station at Gurdaspur and the air force base at Pathankot. If a water crisis were made to occur during the peak of summer in Delhi by terrorists, its impact will not be limited to the degradation in the quality of life in the national capital. With TV and social media amplifying the message, the psychological impact of an environment of high uncertainty and fear in the minds of citizens across the country will be very powerful. An attack on a poorly guarded CNI will be an end in itself — to cause massive disruption to social and administrative systems, a situation no democratic government can endure for long.
Following the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, the union Home Ministry had indeed undertaken an exercise to identify the vulnerabilities in India’s CNI. These included airports, ports, nuclear plants, power stations, canal regulators, communication centres, stock exchanges, refineries, and oil and gas pipelines. A plan to secure them by using a combination of technology and human intelligence-based applications was also made. Despite some progress till 2012, as with many other proposals after the Mumbai terror attacks, the plan was never fully implemented.
Since then, CNI protection has completely fallen off the radar of the Home Ministry, as the Munak canal episode demonstrated. There is an immediate need to conduct a fresh nationwide risk assessment to identify and map the CNI to assess their vulnerability to various threats. It will have to be followed by the development and maintenance of adequate counter-measures and emergency plans. Specialised awareness training to security staff for each asset will have to be provided, and the whole process — starting from a fresh risk assessment — will have to be repeated periodically.
The United States has had a Critical Infrastructure Protection Program since 1996, which was upgraded after the 9/11 attacks. The Department of Homeland Security has divided CNI into 16 sectors and is responsible for their protection. The United Kingdom’s Centre for Protection of National Infrastructure has categorised CNI according to their value or “criticality” and the impact of their loss. This categorisation is done using a “Criticality Scale” which includes three impact dimensions: impact on the delivery of the nation’s essential services, economic impact, and impact on life. The higher the criticality, the greater the protection.
The Munak canal episode highlights another lacuna in our internal security apparatus — a poor intelligence setup. From the Local Intelligence Units of the state police to the central intelligence agencies, there was no warning of the protestors cutting off the water supply to Delhi. The gaps in the intelligence setup are longstanding, and together with a non-existent CNI protection plan, have the potential of causing serious damage.