Book Review – Toxic Portents: CBRN incident management in India

Updated: August 24, 2021 5:08 PM

According to Athavale, CBRN emergencies can be “a result of occupational exposure, fire, industrial explosions, release of toxicants and wastes”.

TOXIC PORTENTS CBRN: Incident Management in India by Col Ram V Athavale, PhD

By Karuna John

The term Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN), is not as intense as the consequences of what devastation each of those elements can unleash on the world, should they be misused. Each time there is a war, a terror attack, or even a pandemic as the world is witnessing right now with Coronavirus, conversations and conspiracy theories start circulating, as news as well as keynotes of the infamous ‘WhatsApp university’. Even the former, unfortunately is under informed on the subject.

There is not enough information on the dangers of CBRN elements should they fall into the wrong hands, because there are not enough subject experts willing to share information. A step in filling the glaring gap is Toxic Portents: CBRN Incident Management in India, authored by Col. Ram Athavale (retd). Athavale is a CBRN Security and Incident Management Consultant based in Pune, India and holds a PhD on the subject from the Savitribai Phule Pune University. His doctoral thesis was on ‘CBRN Terrorism and its Crisis and Consequence Management in India’, was perhaps how the seeds of Toxic Portents the book were sown.

According to Athavale, CBRN emergencies can be “a result of occupational exposure, fire, industrial explosions, release of toxicants and wastes”. We see such incidents reported in the news often but as lay people seldom associate it with CBRN. Accidents such as these are often seen as a result of negligence in waste management, maintenance of equipment. The author states that CBRN can be both ‘weaponized and non-weaponized’, which simply put can be understood as ‘you don’t need to be in a war situation or a war zone’ to be at risk here. Here is a recap, remember the Bhopal gas tragedy (1984), the suspected ‘radiation’ at Delhi (2010), Plague, Swine Flu, Dengue, Bird Flu, and of course Covid-19? Each of these saw a near panic, rather a knee jerk response from the administrations concerned, emergency handling too was often symptomatic, and that is after the event had taken place. The lack of preparedness shook India, was recorded in history and exposed the lack of critical infrastructure. Once there was calm after the storm, there was talk of preparedness before the next disaster struck. However, as the second wave of Covid-19 exposed, that too remained a pipe dream. Hopefully, lessons have been learnt.

The book comes at a crucial time to remind that CBRN incident management has to be planned way ahead. When nothing is happening as far as an adverse incident is concerned. Rather, it is a reminder that CBRN incidents can and do happen, in varying intensities even though they are not noticed such as in vulnerable zones such as large public gatherings. The book aims at calmly raising awareness of CBRN threats and risk mitigation measures. It also stresses on an urgent need to educate and train all stakeholders including the general public on CBRN risks and threats.

Is India prepared? However, CBRN incidents are yet to enter the priority files of policy makers who have to be the first to generate awareness of such risks and mitigation. This book is for them, to understand CBRN threats and perhaps discuss the possible response scenarios. It also bravely lists out “What Ails the Indian CBRN Preparedness and Response’, not something many policy makers and security experts want to acknowledge leave alone discuss.

Divided into chapters, with self-explanatory titles: Understanding CBRN Threats; Response to CBRN Incidents; Global Initiatives for CBRN Risk Mitigation, Is India Prepared?; What Ails the Indian CBRN Preparedness and Response; Enhancing CBRN Security, lead to suggestions such as ‘Developing a National CBRN Strategy and Plan’ , a CBRN Incident Management Structure, Enforcement of Laws and Protocols, Proliferation Prevention and Border Control, CBRN Security for Critical Infrastructure and High Visibility Events, Industrial and Logistics Security, and Response Essentials, Col Athavale’s intent to help, both as a subject expert, and as a concerned citizen are clear. However, it is not easy to predict if the book will have a difference where it matters: the political and policy making authorities.

A typical reader will find it highly technical, but someone interested in defence issues, technology, and security concerns will find it an engaging read. However, the book needs more graphics, and better photographs to have a bigger impact, and perhaps reach a younger readership of students, and lay citizens, who urgently need this information now, to be equipped and informed about CBRN, when they find themselves in charge of decision making offices. Till then, it is a detailed reference book, which is likely to make the reader reach out to the author himself, for a detailed discussion.

More about the reviewer of the book: Karuna John is an independent writer and editor. She’s worked with leading publications, print and digital for over two decades. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.

More about the author of the book: Col Ram Athavale, PhD, is a specialist in CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) Security, Risk Mitigation and Incident Management. He has been a Key CBRN Advisor to the Govt of India and the European Union CBRN Risk Mitigation Centers of Excellence initiative (EU CBRN CoE). He has authored a pioneering book on ‘CBRN Incident Management in India’, titled “Toxic Portents”. Presently based at Pune, India, he functions as a CBRN Security Consultant and a Visiting/Adjunct Faculty at some Indian and overseas universities, academic institutions and military training establishments.

TOXIC PORTENTS CBRN: Incident Management in India

Author: Col Ram V Athavale, PhD

Published by: Vij Books India Pvt Ltd

Pages: 238

Price: ₹ 995.00.

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