It was closing in on midnight on June 28 when a passerby noticed a bag lying unattended at a bus stand close to the popular Select Citywalk in the south Delhi’s Saket.
The police control room (PCR) was alerted, bomb disposal squad called in and after a two-hour drill the areas was declared safe. The bag was clean – there were no explosives.
Shopping malls are looking increasingly vulnerable. Malls are high-impact targets – large-scale fatalities and maximum publicity.
A German teenager obsessed with mass shootings shot dead nine people in a shopping centre in Munich on July 23. Sixty-seven people were killed when al-Shabab militants struck the upscale Westgate mall in the Kenyan capital Nairobi in 2014.
Lone-wolf or an organised strike, malls are at an equal risk of both.
A week after suspected ISIS gunmen left 22 diners dead in 12-hour Dhaka café siege in Bangladesh on July 1, HT visited Select Citywalk with an expert for an on-spot check.
The mall is one of the most popular ones in the city, with a daily footfall of around 40,000 visitors.
Former additional commissioner of police (crime) Ashok Chand, who has investigated several terror cases, including the 2001 Parliament strike, shared his assessment with HT.
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The PCR van is the first on a spot but the personnel can turn to the local police station if they find the threat too serious. The Saket police station, responsible for the mall, has 250 personnel. “In case the local police sense the threat to be beyond their control, they can alert the SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team, which takes 20 to 25 minutes to arrive,” said Chand.
The Delhi Police’s SWAT team has 135 commandos, 45 of them ready for an emergency. Shifts are rotated so that every 15 days a group is out training.
Every evening the 45 members are split into groups of five to six commandos and stationed at randomly picked public places, including malls.
The National Security Guard, the country’s elite anti-terror force, is the last line of defence. They step in if the SWAT team struggles to contain a situation, Chand said.
Police have a “contingency plan” for all popular spots that is reviewed every six months. Blueprints and positioning of snipers are all there in the plan. Mock drills are also a regular affair. But is that enough?
Across the world quick reaction teams –the first on a scene of terror or crime -- are an elite bunch, well- trained with anti-terror experts in the ranks and bulletproof vehicles and hi-tech weaponry to back them.
In Delhi, the QRT vehicle, which is the PCR van, is usually a Maruti Gypsy or a worn-out Ambassador car, outsourced from a private cab company. The drivers are not police officers but employees of the cab firms.
SWAT teams fare no better. Only three SWAT vehicles are blast-proof and there is no way to ensure that an armoured vehicle is the one stationed close to Select Citywalk or for that matter any other mall.
Chand found frisking to be thorough and vehicle checks intensive at the mall.
“The internal private security of Select Citywalk is vigilant. They are supplementing the police efforts in keeping the area safe and secure,” he said.
Two constables are deployed at the mall. “The purpose of these regular deployments is to strengthen our quick response system in case of an emergency,” a special cell police officer said.
A network of CCTV cameras watches visitors, with at least six people monitoring the feed in control rooms. A PCR van is parked outside the mall in the evening when the number of visitors multiplies so does the threat.
The mall’s location posed a risk, said Chand. People from south Delhi, the tony part of the Capital, frequent the mall. “This place is a potential threat because terrorists want to target those areas which can give them maximum publicity,” Chand said.
He warned of several scenarios playing out in the mall. “A suicide bomber can play havoc. Armed terrorist can enter the building and take hostages. “Gunmen can resort to indiscriminate firing or bombs can be placed in a container to cause maximum casualties,” Chand said.
The mall was not prepared for an attack or a hostage situation. “There are no armed commandos anywhere. What will happen if there is an armed intrusion?” Yogeshwar Sharma, the mall’s executive director, said sharing “crucial information” on armed guards is not in their interest.
In the prevailing environment, it is not possible to guarantee 100% safety and security. “We are taking all measures to prevent any such activity in coordination with the Delhi Police,” Sharma said.