When you hear blasts and there’s a sudden whiff of smoke, the teacher said, go down on your knees and use a wet handkerchief to protect your eyes.
It was a lesson few thought would have to be taught in classrooms. But the Chennai school wanted its children to be prepared for urban terrorism, one of the new realities of their nation.
Across the country, citizens are trying out small homegrown ways to deal with terrorism — and be more vigilant. “We are giving them a bomb drill as well … People (should) know how to resist terror in their own small way,” said S.S. Nathan, principal of Chennai’s Bala Vidya Mandir school.
Hundreds of kilometers to the north, street hawkers and shopkeepers are New Delhi’s new detectives. They pass on information about unclaimed objects. Police have also started mock safety drills at commercial hubs like Khan Market, Priya complex, malls in West Delhi and the Gaffar market. Public address systems have been installed.
“While conducting such drills, we don’t inform even the fire officials or ambulance services. We do this to check their preparedness to tackle a terror attack,” a senior police officer said on condition of anonymity.
Those efforts have saved lives.
In September, no one died when two bombs exploded at M Block market in Greater Kailash-I because the alert market asked people on the PA system not to touch any unidentified object soon after a cycle exploded in the parking lot.
Multi-religion peace committees of citizens have been formed in neighbourhoods to prevent possible religious tensions after terrorist attacks.
To the east in Assam, citizens are being armed to face militants, a model used in the late 1990s in the state’s villages. The rural campaign helped break the backbone of militancy then.
Mumbai’s terror attacks — and the serial blasts in Assam a month earlier killing 84 people — seem to have reinvigorated village vigilantism and inspired urban clones. “We are trying to draft committed, patriotic people into such groups with the objective to watch out for suspicious strangers,” said Dhiren Baruah, president, Save Guwahati Build Guwahati.
In Hyderabad, some neighbourhoods have formed local security committees and started patrolling areas at night. “Police are in no position to provide round-the-clock security to our locality, even if we are ready to pay. So our young men have taken up patrolling on their own,” said Sambasiva Rao, a community elder in Begumpet. Gated communities in the IT hub of Hitec City and Madhapur have increased security by installing electronic security devices and solar fences.
But in city after city, huge holes remain in public safety.
In Mumbai, a government panel found rules for safe buildings were not enforced in multiplexes. Often, there was just one exit. CCTVs have been installed at several public places but those manning them are either not trained or not vigilant, experts say.
“Give the turnkey job to the vendor who has installed the system and make him accountable for security. We know the business best. Leave it to those who know the business,” said Pramoud Rao, managing director of Zicom, a company that manufactures surveillance equipment.
“The police should treat us as a second line of defence and utilise private agencies. Instead, they harass guards,” alleged Swaran Salaria, managing director of TRIG Guardforce Ltd. “We’re ready to work with the authorities and share information and skills, but they must allow for that kind of integration.” he said.
Others want tax breaks for security equipment. “Electronic equipment falls under IT, like computers, but unlike computers that have zero per cent import duty, we have to pay up to 35 per cent,” said Rakesh Bharadwaj, general secretary, Asian Professional Security Association.
Expensive or not, people are scrambling to install safety equipment and hire guards. People even wanted their weddings protected by armed guards.
(With inputs from Kinjal J. Dagli, MR Venkatesh and Ashok Das)