More than six months after 26/11, and many articles, books, and committees and much rhetoric later, the state of security in Mumbai and the rest of India remains far from where it should be. Improving national security is not about making belligerent statements, buying equipment, or creating specialist units in a knee-jerk fashion. It is about raising the security posture in an integrated manner across the spectrum of agencies providing national security. Lessons from disasters prove that efficient response by first responders—police, fire brigade, medical services and specialist units such as bomb disposal squads—can mitigate damage by as much as 90%.
The immediate response to crisis situations needs four essential elements working in synchronization. This article examines those elements and shows how India has perhaps frittered away opportunities to develop and exercise them.
When it comes to first responders, quality scores over quantity. A hand-picked sub-unit that is well trained, equipped and constantly drilled, is the vanguard during any crisis. First responders should be geared with state-of-art equipment such as light-weight body armour, motion sensors, thermal imagers, etc., to face multiple eventualities. They should be led by motivated and battle-hardened leaders so that critical decisions are taken during fleeting windows of opportunity.
The second element is high mobility. By their very nature, elite units cannot be en masse. This means they have to be extremely mobile and readily deployable. The air force has a concept of “cockpit readiness”, which means the pilot is strapped in in the cockpit of the fighter, ready to scramble in seconds. First responders, too, need such readiness levels and dedicated custom-built mobility units such as armoured vehicles and airlifts. For instance, during the Mumbai attacks, fire the brigade and ambulances were simply unable to close in, because their vehicles were not geared to withstand bullets, nor were the personnel trained to operate under hostile conditions.
Command, control and communication form the pivot around which this sharp end of the stick hinges. The ability to set up a command centre, manned by experienced and senior leaders, with the authority to take tough decisions and to set up communication lines that integrates across different agencies, developing a common vocabulary so that each operating unit knows what the other is saying, are critical elements for crisis response.
The last component, of course, is practice, practice and more practice. Responders need to rehearse crisis simulations with degrees of adversities under simulated conditions so that they are able to react to planned and unplanned scenarios. And they need to do this at a national level, and not just in Mumbai or metros.
The crucial question is: Who bears the cost for all this? Notwithstanding the inefficiencies of the government and bureaucracy, India simply cannot afford to expend huge amounts of resources required to bolster national security to world-class standards. And this is why opportunities to create such capabilities must not be wasted.
An ideal “training” exercise would involve responders across the country preparing for crisis situations. They would need to do threat assessment of different locations and facilities, improve security across mass transportation modes, public places, and other high-density “targets” such as malls and stadiums. Paramilitary units would need to be trained so that they could be rapidly deployed to different parts of the country. They would need dedicated transport, drills of advance teams being dispatched and briefed by ground liaison units, which in turn would have to be trained to gauge and contain the initial level of damage.
All this would require a central command and control framework with a common vocabulary between participating units such as police, paramilitary forces and specialist teams such as the National Security Guard.
We lost a major opportunity to do all of this by choosing to move the Indian Premier League (IPL) out of the country—for security reasons. If we had chosen to conduct IPL in India, paramilitary and police units would have been drilled to plan for eventualities, conduct threat assessments, work in coordination with other first responders, and manage crowds. The shifting of matches between different cities would have drilled the administration in responding to a moving “threat” location. But we chose instead to view this opportunity as a problem and move it out of the country. The loss of revenue and brand was minuscule compared with the opportunity India lost to conduct a coordinated national security programme, paid for by IPL.
IPL was shifted because the tournament clashed with the general election. That line of thinking wishes for ideal conditions during crises and is removed from reality. A country can choose degrees of difficulty during training but can’t demand an ideal situation during a real catastrophe. IPL would have geared us up for the Commonwealth Games, which in turn is another opportunity to address homeland security in a synchronized long-term manner instead of a piece-meal fashion. With 15 months to go for the Commonwealth Games, it is critical that we leverage this opportunity to start a world-class security infrastructure, which is envisioned far beyond the specific event.
Raghu Raman is chief executive of corporate risk consulting firm Mahindra Special Services Group that advises companies and organizations on threat assessments and risk mitigation strategies. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org