Bio-terrorism: Is India prepared against such new and emerging forms of terrorism?

Bio-terrorism is not a conventional modus operandi to inflict damage upon human lives and property. As science and technology is upgrading itself with every passing day, the risk of discovering a new form of biological phenomenon is also very much obvious. International community has taken a strict stance against such chemical and biological attacks. But, the larger question is, is India prepared? 

Bio-terrorism poses a unique challenge and is a looming global security threat. Bio-terrorism can be defined as the intentional release of pathogens or toxins by non-state actors to inflict harm on a wide population by infecting humans, crops or livestock. In addition, military research has also been carried out for exploiting the potential of microorganisms to attack specific physical infrastructure, for example, by degrading plastics and rubber.

International history of bio-weapons. Credits: À La Mode Satire

Historical Note:-

The concept of biological warfare in primitive forms of bacteriological warfare can be traced far back into pre-history, although probably the first recorded event concerns the defeat of Kirrha by the Athenians, by throwing bundles of hellebore roots into the water supply in 600 BC.

In 1346, the Mongols catapulted plague-infected corpses over the walls into Kaffa, forcing the besieged Genoans to flee. However, before 2001 anthrax attacks using weapons-grade Bacillus anthrax, the use of biological weapons by non-state actors was largely inconceivable.

History has witnessed incidents like the air dropping of plague-contaminated fleas against Chinese by the infamous Japanese Army Unit 731 in 1940 and other lesser-known incidents like the introduction of mercury into Israeli oranges by the Palestinian terrorists in 1979. In 1984, deliberate contamination of food by the Rajneesh religious cult in Oregon, United States (US), caused more than 750 people to fall ill.

India’s preparedness against Bio-terrorism: Existing Measures:-

India’s preparedness to deal with bio-terrorism leaves much to be desired. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is the nodal ministry for countering terrorism, while the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoH&FW) is responsible for handling epidemics. The Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) deals with epidemics in animal and crop. The Ministry of Defense (MoD) has armed forces inherently suitable as first responders. However, there is per se no separate central organization holistically addressing different facets of bio-terrorism threat.

Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) is responsible for the formulation, coordination and promotion of bio medical research with National Institute of Virology (NIV) at the apex level. Other important facilities under the ICMR include the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases, National Institute of Epidemiology and Vector Control Research Centre. The National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), under Director General of Health Services, has numerous specialized laboratories, but presently lacks technical expertise to counter bio-terrorism.

Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has an extensive network of laboratories. Defense Research and Development Establishment (DRDE) is engaged in research on hazardous chemicals, biological agents, biotechnology, microbiology, virology and toxicology. Defense Materials and Stores Research and Development Establishment specializes in the production of individual protective equipment (IPE). The Defense Food Research Laboratory specializes in food quality, safety and security.

The NDMA is mandated to plan, prepare and respond to both natural and man-made disasters, with state disaster management authorities (SDMAs) for coordination and monitoring of disaster management (DM) activities down to the district and local levels. National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) is trained as a multidisciplinary force for specialized response to natural and man-made disasters.  It consists of 10 battalions, from the Border Security Force (BSF), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force (ITBP), and two battalions from Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) are in the process of being upgraded.


Cooperation between Security Agencies, Intelligence Units, Public Health Services, Scientific Community and Industry

The threats posed by bioterrorism involve numerous technical challenges falling outside the core competencies of security organizations. The evolution of a new knowledge-empowered community via collaboration between scientific, health and law enforcement agencies can help keep pace with evolving fields of genetics, biotechnology and terrorism.

Developing Detection Technology

Security agencies, in   collaboration with the scientific community   and private industry,   should develop, evaluate and deploy rapid, reliable, broad-spectrum, cost-effective, sensitive and selective detection technologies for biological threats. Innovative approaches, like the use of hydro- gen peroxide sprays and ultraviolet light exposure to destroy biological agents in underground metros, biosensors coupled with immortalized rat brain cells to provide early warning of presence of biological agents or, more contemporarily, having passive, lightweight mass spectrometers for real-time detection and destruction of biological agents, are required.

Specialist Research Organization to Counter Bioterrorism

There is a need for a central nodal governmental agency for bioterrorism. NDMA needs to play an important role in responding to bioterrorism incidents, but its focus remains on a post-disaster response. NCDC is not mandated for bio-terrorism and, moreover, does not have the requisite infrastructure as  well as the expertise as per the present organization.


Bio-terrorism is a low-probability, high-impact event. Mitigating this threat calls for a robust public health system. Political awareness and public participation are essential components of threat mitigation. Presently, security forces do not have adequate know-how about bio-terrorism and require both capacity and capability building. Inclusive and holistic efforts are needed to build a seamless system of prepared- ness and response to counter bio-terrorism. The preparation of India against biological attacks will have dual-use benefit of combating natural diseases, thus transforming India into a resilient society.


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Author: Abhimanyu Shrivastava (pursuing B.A., LL.B. from University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun)

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