Created in the aftermath of the intelligence failure in Kargil, the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) was supposed to be at the cutting edge of gathering intelligence via technical means. But just six years after its birth on April 14, 2004, the outfit is gasping for breath.
Mired in corruption and known for operational inefficiency, it has become a hub for nepotism and has the dubious distinction now of being the first intelligence agency in the history of independent India to be subjected to a financial audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.
The NTRO appointed as its secretary a man who headed a silicon chips facility; got a finance man to fly its UAVs.
More than the audit, though, it’s the ongoing inquiry being conducted by a one-man high-powered committee that threatens to shake the agency’s very foundations. The man heading the committee, P.V. Kumar, retired as a special secretary from the Research and Analysis Wing last year and was absorbed into NTRO as its advisor. Kumar has now been given the unenviable task of inquiring into the murky waters around the organisation in the hope that it can be brought back on track.
Topping Kumar’s agenda are the alleged misdeeds of the agency’s second-in-command, Dr M.S. Vijayaraghavan, a former DRDO scientist who was inducted into NTRO under mysterious circumstances. Why was someone who had spent his professional life working with semi-conductors and heading a facility that dealt with silicon chips chosen to head a technical intelligence organisation? His detractors attribute it to his proximity to the scientific advisor to the prime minister, R. Chidambaram.
The high-powered committee has been asked to look into some of the allegations of misappropriation and misconduct against Vijayaraghavan. These are:
- He chaired several price negotiation committees, including one that purchased a large number of routers from US firm CISCO Systems in an order worth US $1 million. Subsequent to the purchase, Vijayaraghavan’s daughter was employed by CISCO. Did the promise of a job influence the deal?
- Kumar is also looking into the details of Vijayaraghavan’s travels abroad as well as the total expenditure incurred by NTRO on the same. Documents available with Outlook show that NTRO spent Rs 18.22 lakh in 2007-2008, Rs 16.72 lakh in 2008-2009 and Rs 8.04 lakh in 2009-2010 to sponsor his travels.
- Vijayaraghavan’s appointment was allegedly made without a search committee or an advertisement. Did this not violate the recruitment rules of the government?
- There are several other issues as well. For instance, Vijayaraghavan was staying at a posh, two-storeyed bungalow in Delhi’s upmarket Hauz Khas locality for almost a year. While the rent for the bungalow ran into several lakhs a month, he didn’t have to pay a single rupee.
The most worrying aspect of Vijayaraghavan’s current tenure, however, is that while being appointed as advisor to NTRO, he was also allowed to continue in his earlier capacity as head of a DRDO lab as well as serve as the executive director of a non-government society seen as a lobby for the electronic industry. Known as the Society for Electronic Transactions & Security (SETS), it paid for a huge bungalow in Bangalore where his family stayed while he resided in Delhi. Interestingly, while the gazette notification states that he was appointed in the pay scale of Scientist “G”, his current appointment is a grade higher.
But Vijayaraghavan’s indiscretions are not the only anomalies at NTRO. The agency appointed Vaibhav Vikrant, a man with a financial background, to fly by remote control its Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Usually the preserve of experienced IAF pilots, Vikrant only had to take a snap course in flying aero-models in Hissar for his appointment to sail through.
Then there are security breaches. Ruchi Srivastava, an NTRO official, allegedly purchased a computer mainframe of Chinese origin, without bothering to seek the approval of the agency responsible for clearing such purchases, the Cipher Policy Committee. Similarly, a portable satellite communication system was purchased from a Singapore-based company blacklisted by the Indian government.
Worried about the massive security and financial implications, the government asked the CAG to begin an audit in Feb 2010. Kumar likewise was asked to begin a thorough investigation into the other allegations. Sources say the report, when ready, could sound the death knell for NTRO. The organisation, built on the patterns of the American National Security Agency, is now busy fighting its internal demons, rather than stopping terrorists preparing to wage a covert war against India.