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Your security: Who is in charge?

Strategic analysts believe the creation of a single homeland or internal security ministry, separate from the home ministry is one of the top three security reforms that India needs following the Mumbai carnage, report Pramit Pal Chaudhuri and Aloke Tikku.

india Updated: Dec 04, 2008 19:40 IST

US customs, immigration, coast guard, ports, airports and border control all report to one minister, the director of homeland security. In India, these bodies report to six different ministries.

While it is often derided in the US as cumbersome and inefficient, the US ministry has one thing to its record: since its creation after 9/11, no foreign terrorist has been able to attack the US mainland.

Strategic analyst K. Subrahmanyam believes “the creation of a single homeland or internal security ministry, separate from the home ministry” is one of the top three security reforms that India needs following the Mumbai carnage.

Internal security, he argues, cannot be a part-time job of the home minister along with Centre-state relations and minority issues. “It needs the attention of a full-time cabinet member,” he says.

The fragmentation of internal security in India is all the more remarkable given how the country has been repeatedly attacked by terrorists over the decades. There are many examples of how the lack of a single institution in charge of the country’s first ring of defence costs the system in terms of efficiency.

An Intelligence Bureau joint director recalled setting up five subcommittees, each headed by a different agency, within the Subsidiary Multi-Agency Centre he headed to get others to share information.

“It was not the best model but the only workable one,” he concedes. <b1>

The divisions run not only between, say ports and airports, but within institutions. Coastal defence is divided between three different agencies: the state coastal police, coast guards and the navy. But even they are all at sea.

“We do not know who, or how many vessels, are authorised to be in the deep waters,” a coast guard official says. Because records of movements of vessels are held by a different set of agencies: customs, the directorate of fisheries of the state concerned and the Mumbai-headquartered Directorate of Shipping.

This, when border control is particularly important to India because of porous borders with countries which are home to elements hostile to the country and a longer coastline. No other major country faces such a challenge on this front.

A.K. Mitra, who spent the last few years as chief of the Border Security Force, acknowledged the “lack of coordination and reluctance to share information” among different forces.

Mitra retired this September, convinced that India should consider “a central agency on a par with the US homeland security department”.

K. Santhanam, ex-deputy director of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, feels the government has ignored technological solutions to the border problems.

“I have visited our border posts running from Kashmir to Gujarat. I have personally installed fences that can detect a person crawling through the sand into Rajasthan,” he says. “We also have sonar and seabed sound detectors that could warn us of maritime intruders. All at relatively low cost.”

These solutions are unpopular, as are most forms of border control, because they affect the lucrative profits that come from smuggling.

Subrahmanyam argues, “There has to be a clampdown on the organised crime-politician nexus. Many of the terror incidents happen because the smugglers open a door for their goods. The RDX explosive then follows the same route.”

“To defeat the likes of Dawood Ibrahim you need clean politics,” he says.

The other internal security breach that needs to be closed is the divide between central and state agencies. Or within the central agencies themselves.

The coast guard, entrusted with guarding India’s 7,516 km long coastline, has less than one man for every kilometre.

“It is the same story in the hinterland,” says an IB official, stressing that reforms in state agencies had to match the reforms in Delhi.

Except for the police in some metros like Delhi and Mumbai, Indian states and cities do not have the capacity to fight terror or even follow up tip-offs from central agencies. Why, they don’t have enough men to police their streets. “So they expect us to spoon-feed them,” he complains.

Because militants often use criminal or illegal networks to accomplish their missions, beat cops often turn up leads into more dangerous groups.

“They are still dependent on their criminal intelligence network to fight terror,” he says. Sometimes they are lucky, go looking for something and end up with a bigger catch.

Like when the Chhattisgarh police questioned a man for theft, only to realise that he was a Naxalite and led them to two other Naxal commanders. Or the Madhya Pradesh police entered a house in Indore looking for some local Students Islamic Movement of India activists and ended up catching the group’s leadership including chief Safdar Nagori.

“We were accidentally lucky… We can’t be lucky every time,” the official says.