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Why your airport security check is so painful

The unsurety, that is the Indian system, comprises of endless layers of inefficient checks
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First Published: Sat, Feb 23 2013. 12 11 AM IST
What do multiple layers of security at airports tell us about ourselves? Photo: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times
What do multiple layers of security at airports tell us about ourselves? Photo: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times
A few months ago, I was sitting in the lounge at Bangalore airport, which is immediately to the right after security check. An IPS officer and a man in a suit came in. They began questioning the lounge staff in English and I moved across to overhear. They had learnt that the lounge had cutlery. What sort was it, they asked.
Why it was all-metal knives and forks. The men were horrified. How many do you have here? Trays were brought out, filled with hundreds of potential weapons. The men scratched their heads. How did these get to the other side of security check?
Probably because the Indian system is set up on a linear function, stamping and checking stamps of passengers filing through from entrance to air bridge, holding out their ticket/ID/boarding pass at each stage. When something requires thinking rather than stamping, it falls through the cracks.
This is how airport security works in India.
At the approach, you drive through an obstacle, where policemen standing around may or may not observe who is inside your vehicle. In some places, Goa is one, they stop the car and, for some reason, ask what flight you’re taking. This is the first check.
Often, outside, there is a machine-gun nest, complete with a net for protection against grenades. This has no function except for defence when an attack is actually under way. At Mumbai airport, there is one at arrivals rather than departures, which always stumps me as I pass by and duck under (the gun’s barrel is pointed straight ahead). Perhaps they’re guarding against the terrorist who just landed.
Anyway, at the entrance is the second check, where a guard looks at your ticket and compares it to your identity card. It’s not clear what this check is meant to do. Tickets are just computer printouts and the name on the identity card isn’t matched against any database. If you were a terrorist, you would still walk through every time as long as you carried an ID.
Your identity is in any case verified by the airline against your ticket when you check in, so the check at the gate is redundant. Your baggage, however much of it you carry, isn’t scanned till you actually enter the airport’s heart, the check-in counters, and are amid the passengers. Srinagar airport is an exception, and there the bags are scanned in an outhouse before passengers enter the building.
After you get your boarding pass is the security check. This comprises three parts. First (your third encounter with security) is the X-raying of hand baggage, which is the same around the world, and perhaps has the same inefficiencies of human oversight.
Then you are frisked with a hand-held scanner. This happens in other countries when you set off the metal detector you walk through. Not otherwise. In India these detectors act only as doorways, or perhaps they’re switched off. In any case, they’re not used and everyone goes through a physical check. Except, and this is an aside, ministers, Lok Sabha members (after former speaker Somnath Chatterjee objected to being frisked) and, according to The Indian Express, the following categories: judges of the Supreme Court, governors, ambassadors of Indian missions, chief ministers and Robert Vadra.
Moving on.
Wallets may or may not be permitted on your person during the check, depending on what rule is currently in effect. The same applies for jackets. In Delhi, these are allowed in the winter. Often in the same airport the rule is different one week from another.
Large flaps of numbered plastic, 6 inches long and 5 inches wide, are given to you to secure your property so that someone, this being India, doesn’t take off with your iPad or laptop while you’re being frisked. This large flap is put on the table with your boarding pass and isn’t checked. One could easily tape a long blade to its back.
Your boarding pass is then stamped, for some purpose which I cannot properly figure out. What is this stamp meant to indicate? Is it possible to get into the boarding area without going through a security check? Perhaps, given the knives and forks in the lounge.
The handbag X-rayed is also verified by a rubber stamp. No other nation does this either.
The only purpose it has is to employ yet another person, this time at the gate, who examines your baggage tag and your ticket for the rubber stamp just as you enter the air bridge or board the bus.
Your identity is later checked also by the airline employee, who tears off your ticket tab before you enter the plane, so it is not clear what the check just before was supposed to do.
The number of extra and unnecessary people I can count are: At the gate (No. 2), the compulsory hand scan (No. 4) and the stamp-checker (No. 6). These are to be found nowhere else in the world. Nor is the first one, at the obstacle leading to the airport, but this I am not incuding.
My guess is, there are probably about 4,000-5,000 security people who can be freed up from airports across India if the silliness is addressed. So why does it exist?
The Indian system, endless layers instead of one clean check, is produced by a culture that is unsure of its efficiency. It doesn’t trust its people and the machines manning the posts to be thorough and instead of fixing the process, which is not possible in India, another layer is added. If one piles on enough half-competent layers, the objective might be arrived at.
Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.
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First Published: Sat, Feb 23 2013. 12 11 AM IST