Sunday, December 28, 2008

Security matters

Like everyone else in Bombay, I keep thinking about security issues these days. It's not so much because I'm personally afraid (I am, but not enough to keep worrying) but because I do care about this city and country and I keep hoping that our security apparatus is up to the task of protecting both.

Now I happen to live in Navy Nagar, one of the most protected parts of the city, and what I see post 26/11 is not terribly encouraging. To enter Navy Nagar you now have to pass a group of men in army fatigues carrying guns. So far, so good. But what do you have to do to convince them to let you in? It turns out, they would like you to show them a photo-identity card. Any photo-id will do. I don't like to make fun of security forces since I appreciate their work, but the reading skills of these gentlemen are not very impressive and I fear that a photo-id saying "Residence: Faridkot" and "Profession: Terrorist" might work just as well as any other.

Indeed the emerging picture is that they let in anyone who "seems OK". Sometimes I get waved on, and occasionally with a salute (i.e. they mistook me for a Navy officer). Several other cars, possibly of genuine Navy personnel, just race through the check point as if they were Formula 1 drivers. The checkers don't bat an eyelid. Even worse, I find that if I look determined to drive through then they let me through quite happily, while if I stop for them then they invariably check my ID.

In short, anyone upto mischief and possessing the tiniest brain can easily get through. So what's the point of the barrier then?

This is also what I find about airport security checks. When you pass the metal detector, it normally beeps. No one pays the tiniest attention. Usually it beeps because one is carrying coins or wearing a watch, but it would beep in quite the same way if one was carrying a weapon. The pat-down, even nowadays, is totally cursory and I suspect it will not reveal a small carefully concealed weapon. So what's the checking for?

I'm not proposing elimination of checkpoints, nor do I believe that checking should be made much more intrusive. What I am trying to suggest is that it be made more intelligent. Intelligence is not in short supply in India but it needs to be conveyed to the security staff instead of just taking some guys and randomly putting them out there so everyone feels something is being done.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

About the airport security, I personally think it is much better than what they do in the west. In 2004 I was returning from the US and, though they cleared me in Mumbai airport (transiting to Chennai) after a patdown, something about my bag bothered them: they asked me to send it through again, and then again. Then they asked me what was in it. I said CDs, mainly (I was carrying two heavy folders of CDs that I didn't want to trust to checked luggage, their plastic cases removed and junked.) They asked me to remove the cases and send the bag in again. Then they sent the cases through, one by one. It turned out one of the cases had a metal strip in its spine that was showing in their screen, and they couldn't figure out what it was; but once they sorted it out they were happy. And throughout they were pretty polite (by Indian standards -- no plastered smile and fake "have a nice day sir", but friendly enough). I was impressed with their thoroughness.

Though the patdown seems intrusive I prefer it to removing my shoes, belt, pens, keys, and every conceivable metallic object that may be on my person, as is required in western airports. I also doubt the latter is more effective...

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Also, these articles may interest you: 1, 2

Sunil Mukhi said...

Well the airport security in India seems to vary a lot from day to day. I've been travelling a lot in the past few weeks and am mostly surprised to find nothing happening at all. For example on Dec 6 when there was a hullaballoo about Babri Masjid anniversary etc, we were asked to go to the airport 3 hours early and there was just nothing special - it took 5 min to reach the departure gate and the promised screening at the ladder of the plane never happened.

But I'll concede our airport security is good when they're good. I just hope other security personnel, such as the ones I meet daily in Navy Nagar, manage to get somewhere close to knowing what they're doing in a reasonable time-frame.

Shamashis said...

Some days back I was entering Navy Nagar in a cab with my friend and was stopped for a security check. The security person in charge had a look at our photo-id cards and asked us 'naam kya hai?' I never thought terrorists could be such big fools as not to know whose card they were carrying! I understand that security men have a really tough job in their hands but these measures can be breached quite easily.