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Col (Dr) Ram Athavale (Retired) Writes :  


Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) security is a matter of grave concern for many nations today. CBRN security in India is still in its early stages. There is a need to look at it from a broader perspective of internal and regional security challenges that manifest in the form of CBRN terrorism, among others.

Instances such as the March 2018 Novichok nerve agent poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK and recurrent use of chemicals by ISIS in Syria raises fears of large scale CBRN threats to general unassuming public. The current Covid19 global pandemic has highlighted many issues. The paranoia created and panic generated shall have many repercussions and leave many lessons.

National CBRN security is not well understood in India.  Issues like poverty, illiteracy, lack of adequate healthcare, ignorance of safety measures and rampant corruption increase our vulnerability to looming CBRN threats. Covid19 was coming at us since last few months.  Our laudable efforts in keeping the curve flat and being proactively two steps ahead of the possible spike in casualties, have been essentially reactive. It is seen as a health issue and not a National security one.  It is time India woke up to the idea of National CBRN security and made plans for the same.

Present Structure and Mechanism

On 23 December 2005, the Government of India enacted the Disaster Management Act 2005, which established the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), headed by the Prime Minister, and the State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMAs) supervised by respective Chief Ministers, to spearhead and implement a holistic and integrated approach to Disaster Management in India.

The NDMA is mandated to deal with all types of disasters, natural and man-made (including CBRN disasters). While the National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC) oversees all major crisis issues facing the nation, the Government of India has earmarked nodal ministries for CBRN disasters and incidents as under :

  • Biological Disasters – Ministry of Health and Family Welfare
  • Chemical Disasters – Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change
  • Radiological and Nuclear Disasters – Atomic Energy Commission

Government Initiatives for Combating CBRN Disasters

The Indian Government has given reasonable thought to disaster management aspects relating to CBRN threats and instituted a number of measures :-

  • Enunciated standard operating procedures (SOPs) to deal with terrorist attacks involving CBRN Weapons right down to District and Municipal levels.
  • Earmarked sixteen Paramilitary battalions (CRPF, CISF, BSF, ITBP and SSB) as the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). NDRF Battalions are nominated first responders for CBRN disaster/terrorist strikes.
  • States have been asked to raise their own State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) to be the First Responders at State level and augment the NDRF when so required.
  • Set up 23 Radiation Emergency Response Centres (RERCs) in different parts of the country to deal with any nuclear and radiation emergencies.

The NDMA has issued many guidelines for various types of disasters (including CBRN disasters) and their management.

CBRN Related Acts and Laws

India is party to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (BTWC 1972). Also, to the Convention on Prohibition of Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (CWC 1993). India has also joined many protocols and agreements towards effective non proliferation, CBRN counter terrorism, strategic trade control of dual use goods and hazardous waste management.

While there is no overarching CBRN law, there is a whole gamut of administrative, regulatory and legal arrangements obtaining in India which aid CBRN risk mitigation.  These acts and laws complement the Disaster Management Act 2005, the WMD Act 2005 and the Chemical Weapons Act 2000 and contribute towards effective CBRN Incident Management.  In fact, India has a very comprehensive coverage of legal instruments for all aspects of CBRN incident prevention, control, response and mitigation.

Much work has been done in the field of Radiological and Nuclear safety and security. Even disease control is quite effective in India, given its size and population. However, India does not yet have a National Registry of Chemicals and has not completely implemented the Global Harmonised System (GHS) of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals.

Path to National CBRN Security

The first question that is asked when we mention CBRN National security and risk mitigation is, Are we prepared? Listed below are the main areas that need attention towards optimal National CBRN security.

  • Acceptance and Awareness. The fundamental weakness is the lack of understanding (and belief) about the likely occurrence of CBRN incidents by policy makers and administrators. Municipal officials turn a blind eye to CBRN situations and a very cursory interest is shown by District and State administration, primarily due to lack of awareness.
  • National CBRN Strategy and Plan. CBRN issues are either looked as a military matter or a disaster issue and not as a National security concern. There is a need to have a clear National CBRN Strategy, aligned to and drawn from the National Security Strategy, to prevent, respond and mitigate CBRN threats. The CBRN Strategy shall spell out desired objectives to be achieved with broad timeframes. These objectives when matched with mapped existing capabilities and capacities shall draw out the gaps and shortcomings.  Based on the same a multi stakeholder multi faceted National CBRN plan can be developed.
  • CBRN Incident Management Structure. The present mechanism is purely reactive with NDMA being the nodal agency for CBRN disaster management. However, its organisation lacks a department to deal exclusively with CBRN incidents. The Covid19 crisis saw the Ministry of Health taking the lead with laboratories under the Ministry of Science and Technology assisting it. We are still talking of only Crisis Response and Consequence Management and not of Crisis Prevention, even for CBRN terrorism incidents. The present structure is grossly inadequate for effective CBRN prevention, preparedness and needs enhancement. What we need is :
    • National Internal Security Authority (NISA), (aka Homeland Security), is proposed to deal with, among other threats, CBRN Prevention and Crisis management.
    • The existing NDMA should continue to deal with CBRN Consequence management.
  • Enforcement of Laws and Protocols. While we have some of the best laws, enforcement is weak and porous.  India needs to strengthen its enforcement mechanism by strict oversight and rooting out of corrupt practices across ministries and agencies.
  • Proliferation Prevention and Border Control. We need to understand the role of Customs, Excise and Border security agencies in CBRN non proliferation. These agencies must be trained in detection and interception of hazardous shipments, toxic threats, dual use goods and measures to respond to such threats.
  • Trade and Industry Oversight. Unrestricted trade in toxic materials, cost cutting measures, callous neglect of safety and security and corrupt practices lead to easy availability of large amounts of toxic materials.  Slack implementation of legislations and regulations, pilferages and irresponsible dumping/disposal of toxic waste are serious concerns.
  • Response Mechanism. Delayed execution of response protocols by various response agencies – Operational understanding, equipment woes (outdated and inadequate), grossly low footprint and transportation logistics. NDRF Battalions, the only ‘skilled CBRN responders’ also do not train for CBRN regularly and lack state of the art equipment.
  • First Responder Training. There is a dire need of basic CBRN training for the local Police and on-site response teams. Local police are a citizen’s first responders for any crisis. Today the local police do not have even basic understanding of CBRN threats and immediate mitigation measures.  More often than not, the local fire brigade may be called in for immediate CBRN response.
  • CBRN Security Culture. The gross lack of awareness and complacency at Government and administration levels percolates to common citizen. There is a near zero understanding on basics of CBRN incident mitigation. The societal reaction to the current Covid19 crisis is a glaring example. There is a serious need of developing a CBRN Security Culture amongst Government agencies and various stakeholder organisations. Medical Colleges do not teach CBRN casualty management.  This needs a serious review. CBRN risk mitigation should be included in High School and College curricula.
  • Embracing Emerging CBRN Technologies. Emerging technologies are a force multiplier in preventing and effectively responding to a CBRN incident. Lack of indigenous testing kits and PPE during the Covid19 crisis has raised concerns.  Detection and protection are the basic requirements in a CBRN scenario. Use of robotics, drones, unmanned ground vehicles and artificial intelligence need to be aptly integrated in existing prevention and response mechanics. FICCI and CII must encourage a Consortium of CBRN Industries to boost Make in India CBRN products.


It is imperative to develop an integrated CBRN approach that incorporates all international and national CBRN components into a common strategy covering all aspects of Crisis Prevention, Crisis Response and Consequence Management. This entails the application of a holistic approach through which all stakeholders, while operating autonomously, can establish and realise common goals in a synergistic manner.  Comprehensive CBRN Security while retaining domain specialisation can be achieved by the above approach and lead to optimal synergy in operationalising National CBRN Security.


Col (Dr) Ram Athavale (Retired)
The author is a veteran CBRN specialist based at Pune, India. Details are at

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.

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