Atmanirbhar Networks: The upcoming 5G and BharatNet | OPINION

By Dr. Jaijit Bhattacharya

In the summer of 2007, I was lugging around a presentation on the dangers of letting our network be run on components from countries that viewed India as an adversary. Very few gave heed to those presentations but the then Director General of National Informatics Centre, Dr. Gairola, jumped to the issue and actively started socializing the dangers. In the next two years, the then Director-General of CSIR, Dr. Bramhachari passed an order that summarily banned the procurement of equipment by CSIR, including laptops and fax machines from an adversarial country.

A lot has happened since those years. The term, “Technological Sovereignty” that I had coined became a mainstream policy instrument. More importantly, the Indian government formally adopted the concept of Atmanirbhar, which puts us on a path to tightening the security of our technology-driven systems, including defence and the critical information infrastructure.

More importantly, as the discussions had been in 2007, it is critical that we doggedly pursue Atmanirbhar for our network because of the centrality of communication networks to everything we do in a modern world. As I have often mentioned in many of my articles, the most potent toxins in the natural world are the neurotoxins that impact the nervous systems and almost immediately paralyse and kill their targets. Hence spiders and snakes that inject neurotoxins into their adversaries, are considered to be the most poisonous in their species.

Similarly, any malware or other attacks on the communication systems of a nation can immediately paralyse the nation and bring it down to its knees. Imagine trains colliding as the signalling systems have been compromised, or no one being able to withdraw money from ATMs, banks not functioning and the entire e-commerce coming to a standstill.

As per the experts, in the Iraq war, the Iraqi airforce that used to be the sixth most powerful airforce failed to make any credible deterrence to the American invasion. Apparently, some of their key communication equipment was sent for “servicing” as few months before the war, and they came back compromised. That impeded command and control from Baghdad, thus rendering the multi-billion dollar air war machines as junk. That is the power of compromising the communication network of a nation.

So why is this issue relevant at this point of time for India? India is embarking on two very critical communication projects which will overhaul our networks and change the way we live, work and entertain ourselves. India will soon enable 5G networks and will enable a national fibre backbone as part of BharatNet phase III. The two in tandem will transform our lives and our economy. In addition, the rollout of the 5G will clearly benefit from the rollout of the BharatNet.

However, if we allow equipment from adversarial nations to get embedded into the network, it would severely compromise national security. Fortunately, the government has taken significant steps to ensure that the 5G networks are built with Indian technology, to the extent possible. However, similar measures need to be further strengthened for BharatNet also.

India already has considerable capacity for fibre optics and the fibre optics required for the entire project can be manufactured within the country in a few months time. Importing fibre optics need to be strictly discouraged while setting up of the network. In addition, it also needs to be ensured that the active components (i.e. components that require power), are also entirely indigenously manufactured. In fact, the defence already has mature policies for indigenous procurement under the Defence Procurement Policies (DPP), that gives the highest preference to IDDM products (Indigenously Designed, Developed and Manufactured in India). BharatNet needs to adopt a similar procurement regime to ensure increased security of our critical information infrastructure.

Needless to say, such policies will also strengthen the domestic industry to become a more competitive player in the global markets, as BharatNet is one of the largest communication network projects in the world. It would also entail creation of more quality jobs in India, as well as increased manufacturing in the country. That would also mean that the expected two lac crores or thereabouts that will be spent on BharatNet will have a higher economic multiplier effect in the country, thereby increasing its impact on the GDP.

It is therefore an obvious conclusion that the BharatNet project must explicitly encourage greater indigenous components and products, in a similar vein to the 5G rollout, and most definitely keep out equipment from adversarial nations. Such a step would increase the security of the nation while making a larger impact on the GDP growth.

This article first appeared in India Today, https://www.indiatoday.in/opinion-columns/story/atmanirbhar-networks-5g-and-bharatnet-1956286-2022-05-31