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Red alert: Why alarm bells should be ringing at Mumbai airport

The Mumbai airport has grown from a small building to a massive complex but security has failed to keep pace, exposing the airport to strikes like the ones at the airports in Brussels and Istanbul, say experts

india Updated: Aug 02, 2016 13:13 IST
Presley Thomas
Mumbai airport

A senior police officer told HT that the airport could be under threat under four different scenarios, including one involving militants entering the premises through the periphery fencing (AFP file photo)

Mumbai may have taken strides in bolstering security after being bloodied in the 2008 terrorist attacks but its airport is vulnerable to militants who can use nearby slums and poor lighting to sneak into the premises in the heart of India’s financial capital.

The airport has grown from a small building to a massive complex but authorities haven’t scaled up its security apparatus adequately, exposing the premises to strikes like at the airports in Brussels in March and Istanbul last month.

“The current security apparatus is nothing but pro-forma security. The key problem is the lack of imagination to think ahead on the possible situations or contingencies that could arise in the future,” said V Balachandran, former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, and member of the two-member commission probing the 26/11 attacks.

A senior police officer told HT that the airport could be under threat under four different scenarios, including one involving militants entering the premises through the periphery fencing (see graphics).

“Or storing arms and ammunition at hidden sites within airport land, or attacking a sentry post to distract attention of security forces or attacking a loading aircraft for maximum casualties including foreigners,” said the officer.

He said the airport was made vulnerable by the ring of slums around it, poor lighting and an absence of commandos guarding loading aircraft that are the most vulnerable.

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Ironically, the much-hyped T2 is among the most susceptible to strikes because of a lack of security checks at its arrival or departure terminals.

When Hindustan Times visited T2, the road to the departure or arrival terminals was freely accessible. Only one armoured vehicle was seen under the flyover before entering the airport, four pickets on the way to the departure terminal were empty, and four Mumbai policemen chatted away at a supposed barrier right before the departure terminal.

At the terminal, 11 Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel were strategically positioned to man the outer periphery. The arrival terminal had hardly any security personnel stationed outside, and one could find easy access to the complex from at least two different locations. There were no security personnel in the parking areas.

The authorities formed a new standard operating procedure for terror strikes after 2008, including a clear chain-of-command and deputing specific tasks to senior officials.

The guidelines call for an inner and outer cordon to deal with militants and crisis management groups for hostage situations. But many of the recommendations weren’t enforced fully.

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Experts said the Mumbai Police’s strength had increased from 17,000 to more than 45,000 in recent years but their mind-set was stuck in the British era with little imagination to tackle the constantly evolving dynamics during a terrorist strike.

DAY 1 | Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport