India is reluctant to join other Indian Oceam rim nations wanting to kick-start the installation of a tsunami early warning system. The country sticks out as a ‘‘data holdout’’ since it allows other nations access neither to real-time data from its seismic network nor to online tide gauge data. Similarly, the readings from the network of deep-sea sensors it hopes to have in place by September 2007 may be available for use only to its national agencies.
At the first meeting of Unesco’s Intergovernmental Cultural Organization, which is promoting a single networked warning system for the region, Unesco Director-General Koichiro Matsuura said, ‘‘National centres must try to move away from their present minimal configuration to develop their own national detection networks, their own risk assessment and preparedness plans.’’ So India has drawn flak for trying to move ahead on its own steam. But, as Union Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal said, ‘‘We will take a humanitarian approach beyond our boundaries and a self-reliant approach within our boundaries when setting up and sharing advisories from the Indian tsunami warning system.’’ At least four other countries in the region—Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Australia—are trying to put into place their own systems.
There is a well thought out strategy behind India’s data denial. It is the perception here that each key quake parameter, if available to an enemy country, could put Indian security at serious risk. For instance, online tide gauge data can help adversaries plan marine invasions to precisely match tidal movements. The sensors can also detect ship movement that could give away the hidden locations of our submarines. This, however, does not mean that all Indian data will be sacrosanct. ‘‘A flexible approach is the need of the hour,’’ says Sibal. ‘‘It should not compromise our essential defence-related security concerns.’’
An important reason for keeping seismic data exclusive is India’s nuclear policy and its aversion to joining the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). It is quite relevant that the world’s most reliable and open seismology network—the Global Seismographic Network maintained by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), Washington, US, with 128 stations worldwide—also assists in the verification of CTBT by being the ears through which seismic signatures of nuclear detonations are detected by the participating nations.
It is data from this IRIS network that most seismologists use to quickly ascertain the extent, magnitude and tsunami potential of earthquakes. Since it is not a CTBT signatory, India has never been part of this network. What this means is that the global community is neither connected online to earthquake data recorded in India and nor do they have real-time access to seismic data generated in India.
This inward looking policy seemed perfect for India till the tsunami of December 2004 forced it to decide on a Rs 125 crore tsunami early warning system. But a change may be in the offing. V S Ramamurthy, nuclear scientist and secretary, Department of Science and Technology, said, ‘‘Our existing policy of not sharing online seismic data has to change.’’ He explained that for predicting tsunamis accurately we need data from a much larger geographical area. In order to get bigger lead times for the warnings to be practical, India will have to source accurate seismic data from other places—not easy without joining networks like IRIS.
India is hoping that some or the other of the 36 Indian Ocean rim countries will join in its warning system initiative sooner than later. Ramamurthy added that India is reassessing its relationship with IRIS and hinted that data regarding earthquakes of magnitude 5 and above could soon be reciprocally swapped in near real-time. Earlier many international experts had raised a red flag on India’s policy of data holdout, but there is grudging understanding of the country’s compulsions. Costas Synolaks, a tsunami specialist from the department of civil engineering, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, said, ‘‘I am less pessimistic about this now.’’