A project-in-waiting

Print edition : November 13, 1999

IT was the breakdown of communication networks that turned the cyclone disaster in Orissa into a catastrophe. Flood waters washed away not only access roads but all terrestrial communication channels that linked the districts to the outside world. This hampered relief and rescue work. This would not have happened had the POLNET project, conceived 10 years ago, taken off and been commissioned as scheduled in 1998.

POLNET, developed by scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation, was designed to provide a unified police satellite communications network to integrate the entire country for quick exchange of data. Although the project was to facilitate exchange of information on the movement of criminals, crime fact-sheets and access to Interpol's crime profiles of foreign terrorist organisations and individuals, the network would have provided the much-needed connectivity during the cyclone.

Conceived originally by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the project was cleared by the Central government in 1996. Funds were also earmarked. It was to be partly funded by the Union Home Ministry, the Central paramilitary forces and State governments. The Tenth Finance Commission even earmarked funds for 21 States included in the project. However, the project is stuck in the Home Ministry. At a meeting held in September this year, Union Home Secretary K.K. Pandey is learnt to have raised doubts about the need to implement the project despite the fact that the absence of a POLNET-type network was felt during the Andhra Pradesh cyclone disaster of 1996.

The analogue technology used in communications systems at present is primitive, and remote areas in the country do not have communication links even with district headquarters. POLNET was to connect every police station in the country and replace the present network run by the Directorate of Police Coordination Wireless (DPCW). It was also meant to connect every police station in the country with the Interpol headquarters at Lyons, France, through the transponders of the INSAT-2B and 2C satellites. It was designed to connect 600-odd districts in India through 823 hubs, and transmit data at a speed thousand times faster than the present radio communications systems used by the police. It was to be a very efficient alternative to the telephone and other networks. Currently communication among various districts is through a telegraphic data processor. It might take four days even for an urgent message to reach its destination. Besides, DCPW messages often suffer distortion during transmission and are vulnerable to eavesdropping. POLNET, on the other hand, was to have a locking system which would have prevented such lapses.

The delays have pushed up the cost of the project. The total cost worked out by the C.P. Joshi Committee in 1988 was Rs.182.78 crores, but in 1998 it had already gone up to Rs. 288 crores. This is not to mention the cost of precious lives lost owing to the lack of communications and the consequent hampering of effective disaster-management.

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