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Instead of 100 police eyes, we need a million private eyes: ex-special secy

The present strategy of keeping the public in the dark is counterproductive. People should be involved more in the fight against terror, writes V Balachandran, former special secretary, cabinet secretariat, government of India.

india Updated: Nov 25, 2014 17:34 IST

Each year, as we approach the 26/11 anniversary, the question arises whether Mumbai is safe from such terror attacks now. Admittedly, the Maharashtra government had purchased special vehicles, raised new counter-terrorist forces, and conducted drills.

Yet, these could not prevent the July 13, 2011, serial bombing at Zaveri Bazaar and other areas that killed 17. In Patna, the local police could not prevent the October 27, 2013, bombings. The claim that the Intelligence Bureau (IB) had given prior intelligence was disputed by the local police.

One constant after such terrorist attacks is the “finger-pointing” between the Centre and the states or between political parties, as in Patna.
Another is the total sidelining of the public while calibrating counter-terrorism measures – the result of a colonial hangover that the police and bureaucracy alone know what needs to be done.

Why should this be so? Can’t we evolve a counter-terrorism methodology in which the public, the worst sufferers, are given adequate information and even an advisory role? This has been successfully done in several countries.

A research paper by the Institute of Homeland Security Solutions, a private research body, on 86 terrorist plots in the US between 1999 and 2009, indicated that 18 including 9/11 had taken place, while 68 were foiled.

It is significant that 20 of these plots were foiled by the public, 20 by Federal agencies, 15 by local police and only 13 through advance intelligence. In India, we tend to harp on advance intelligence as the only solution for preventing attacks, neglecting other sectors including the public who, as the US experience shows, had contributed the maximum to prevent terrorism.

Open research reports on terrorism by government and private institutes give guidance on recalibrating counter-terrorism and informing the public. We have gone the other way. A typical example is the Maharashtra government’s decision to classify our 26/11 report so that the public, who suffered the most, do not get to know how the killings had taken place or details of mistakes committed.

As against this, the American Homeland Security Department (DHS) publishes every year an open report on the action taken on 9/11 Commission recommendations.

India’s present counter-terrorism methodology has many chinks. We do not have a Centre-state cooperative architecture for prevention. Everything is left to the fragmented and often squabbling state police. Operational efficiency of police units differs vastly from state to state.

The proposed National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) is grounded over personality clashes. The Centre only provides intelligence and extra manpower and watches events as a spectator. The quality of central intelligence is disputed with states claiming that it is not “actionable”. We only lament but do not conduct any research on terrorism to develop preventive measures that even small countries like Singapore are doing.

Another grave mistake we are making is deploying police on private premises such as five-star hotels or malls for their security. Following 26/11, there was a great controversy that the police had been withdrawn from one of the five-star hotels attacked. Now similar noise is being raised following the September 21, 2013, attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

A leading daily quoted unnamed sources as saying the ministry of home affairs (MHA) would soon write to the states to beef up mall security under the “mega city” policing scheme. In fact, in 2009, the “Mirani Committee” appointed by the Maharashtra government had recommended static police posts at five-star hotels.

As member of the Pradhan Committee, I had criticised this. If we study the nature of terrorist victims since the mid-1980s in India we may find that majority of the attacks had taken place in public places such as crowded trains, buses, bazaars and slums.

26/11 was the first attack to target five-star hotels. I had criticised this move as betraying the government’s colonial mentality of guarding only the elite and leaving the common public defenceless.

Yet, another aspect to be considered is the chronic shortage of police strength for public security and crime investigation. The strength of the Mumbai police has increased from 17,000 in the 1970s to more than 45,000 now. Yet, the same shortage exists.

Shortage of manpower prevents police sentries from being relieved frequently. This leads to “alert fatigue syndrome”. Security by such tired guards can easily be breached as has happened several times. This is why other police systems never rely on static posts for counter-terrorism.

In April, 2009, senior Singapore police officials told me during my lecture to them on urban security, that they provided only public security and never on private premises. Hotel and mall security is ensured by fully trained private security groups under legal obligations to maintain adequate standards. Preventive structural security of every public building, business areas and housing colonies is treated as part of national security strategy to fight terror. Had that been done in Mumbai, terrorists would not have entered so easily into five-star hotels.

In the US too, security in hotels, malls and housing colonies is handled by private security groups, supported by the police from outside. In New York, nearly 3,000 private security managers under “NYPD Shield” get briefed almost on a daily basis on intelligence and on follow-up measures after an alert is sounded.

The City of London Police with only 800 men (not to be confused with the London Metropolitan Police) guards the financial hub of about 450 international banks in cooperation with private security. In Los Angeles, such partners of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) are called “First Preventers” compared to local police and FBI who are “First Responders”.

These private sector partners work with local law and order authorities. The LAPD’s National Counter Terrorism Academy trains the police, the fire services, civil defence and private security officials. Singapore’s “Home Team Academy” trains the police, civil defence, coast guards, municipal officers and emergency management sector in meeting joint responsibility on urban terrorism.

The US Homeland Security’s “If You See Something Say Something” has as members students, the National Basketball Association, the National Football Association, Wal-Mart, shopping malls, stadiums, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (1.4 million rooms-10,000 members), the aviation industry and 9,000 federal buildings. They have also started “America’s Waterway Watch” (AWW) programme to educate citizens about the threats around waterfront areas and reporting to the authorities.

It follows that we cannot have a satisfactory counter-terrorism methodology unless we involve the public. Instead of 100 police eyes, we need to have a million private eyes.

[The writer was part of the two-member “High Level Committee” appointed by the government of Maharashtra to enquire into the police response to the 26/11 terror attacks]

First Published: Nov 23, 2013 20:21 IST