Security is a superstition, thought Helen Keller. But most of us need the assurance, even if it remains no more than an illusion. In less than a month, two incidents – the murder of 25-year-old lawyer Pallavi Purkayastha, allegedly by a watchman at her Mumbai apartment, and the accidental shooting of five-year-old Vanya Chadha by a private security guard at her grandfather’s home in Gurgaon – have underlined the flimsiness of it. Can we really trust our lives with a ragtag bunch employed to secure our gated communities?
Police investigations revealed that the absconding guard, Rahul Kumar, who accidentally shot at Vanya last week, got his arms licence from Khagaria district in Bihar a few days after he turned 18. Without any training to handle a gun, he got the licence, which landed him a job as an armed guard even as the application to verify his antecedents was pending with the police.
In the absence of any physical vigil by local police, high-value properties in both residential and commercial zones come with a promise of multi-layer security. According to an estimate, Gurgaon is served by a police force of 3,100 and 40,000 to 50,000 private security guards. The private security sector claims to be growing at 25% annually. The mounting demand is being met with unregistered agencies and untrained, often unverified, and exploited private guards.
Last week, the Economic and Political Weekly quoted a survey by the National Labour Institute on the working conditions of private guards in Okhla and Noida. Of the 200 interviewed, 54% were getting less than the minimum wage. Many of them were given no proof of employment. They were even asked to pay for their uniforms.
Barring a few multinationals and big players, most security agencies hire guards not even fit for the job. Few undergo any physical tests before hiring. It doesn’t matter if one is old, short, puny and even under-nourished. Anyone willing to do 12-hour shifts for a pittance is hired.
It is worse for the armed guards. Most of them are hired because they come with a gun licence procured from their home states and save the security company time and money that goes into getting a corporate arms licence. Mostly on cash-in-transit duties, many of these guards have been involved in shooting sprees and robbing cash vans and ATMs.
In 2006, the Centre framed the Private Security Agencies Central Model Rules, as a guide for state governments. Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh duly enacted the law and directed all security agencies to apply for licences. In Delhi, according to Central Association of Private Security Industry, only 400 out of the 2,500 bothered to apply. Gurgaon fared better with 600 of the 1,500 applying, although licences had been issued to just 100 agencies. Even the licensed ones easily get away with hiring untrained guards because the police only verify the proprietorship of the security agency before issuing licences to operate and do not physically check the security staff.
The Security Knowledge and Skill Development Council, an industry body, has set occupational standards for security personnel and will kick off its training programme in the next six months. But it is a logistical challenge in a country that employs, according to one estimate, seven million private security personnel. Delhi and NCR alone hire 150,000 of the lot and usually look to hire them cheap. But the exploitation of this desperate workforce only leaves us vulnerable. Unless we are happy with its placebo effect till the headlines turn gory.