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Threat of agro-terrorism is real

August 30, 2005 14:29 IST

The campaign to ward off the menace of terrorism has been focusing primarily on protecting human life and property. Safeguarding commerce was added to it after the Mumbai blasts. But a far more vulnerable and socio-economically critical sector like agriculture remains completely unguarded.

This may be because so far there has been no incidence of agro-terrorism in the country. But that is no assurance against any such threat in the future. Like the use of biological weapons against humans, biological means can also be deployed to destroy crops and cripple livestock.

Indeed, agro-terrorism has been a global phenomenon almost since the First World War. It has been perpetrated through purposeful introduction of harmful plant and animal diseases, pests and other agents capable of ruining the agro-rural economy and disrupting food supply chains.

The Tamil militants in Sri Lanka had sometime ago threatened to introduce diseases into tea gardens and rubber plantation owned by the Sinhalese. The instances of damage to agriculture during wars are also legion. Vietnam and Palestine have been the victims of such acts.

Many countries have now begun taking this threat with the seriousness it merits. The United States has, of course, been the leading country in this field. It has taken several anti-agro-terrorism measures, including setting up of a national institute for agricultural security.

Many universities, including some in the United Kingdom, have begun offering courses in combating agro-terrorism and agricultural security. But India, despite facing a much greater peril, is still to take suitable action.

In one of its weekly seminars, the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses recently discussed the issue of agro-terrorism and its threat potential in the Indian context.

The main presentation by its research fellow Ajey Lele maintained that agriculture is one of the easiest targets and any disruption could have catastrophic consequences for the nation's economy.

The bulk of the country's population relies on agriculture and animal husbandry for its livelihood and both these sectors are open to attack by terrorists. Besides, India is one of the world's largest producer, consumer, importer or exporter of several crops and livestock products.

There are over 5,000 known diseases of plants. The variety of insect pests harmful to crops are also innumerable. Many of these pathogens and pests can be multiplied under controlled atmosphere and released in the fields to play havoc with the crops. Contamination of food products with various other types of chemical and biological agents, too, is possible.

In fact, the threat to the country's livestock sector is even more pronounced than to crops. As pointed out by Lele, many experts believe that an attack on animals could be more effective from the agro-terrorism viewpoint than on plants.

This is because animal disease pathogens can travel distances through air and other means more rapidly than crop ailments. Besides, animals, including birds, move around. The dreaded diseases such as foot-and-mouth, rinderpest (cattle plague) and mad-cow disease can be highly infectious and can cause colossal losses. The same is true of poultry diseases such as the bird-flu.

Though a system of reporting contagious animal diseases and preventing their introduction from abroad is already in place, the security against terror attack on animals is far from foolproof. The declaration of India as rinderpest-free country and stoppage of compulsory vaccination against this animal plague can be a case in point.

Though a 30-km wide belt along the Pakistan border was kept as a protected area to ward off the inflow of the plague infection, this has now been done away with after Pakistan has also been declared a rinderpest-free country. This has opened avenues for possible deliberate bid to induct this infection from across the border.

What is really needed is to treat the agro-terrorism menace at par with that of other kinds of terror and evolve a well-conceived strategy to deal with it. For this, anti-agro-terrorism models from other countries can be studied and adapted to the Indian situation.

Such an effort is worth it even if the threat perception ceases to exist. A constant surveillance against pests and diseases of crops and animals will help combat even natural epidemics that often take a heavy toll on crop and livestock output.

Surinder Sud