Beware the prolonged hidden costs that terror attacks saddle us with | Mint

Beware the prolonged hidden costs that terror attacks saddle us with

Fifteen years later, barring airports and perhaps a few government installations, anti-terror measures are largely a farcical ritual that do not really improve security.  (HT_PRINT)
Fifteen years later, barring airports and perhaps a few government installations, anti-terror measures are largely a farcical ritual that do not really improve security. (HT_PRINT)

Summary

  • Inertia means ritualized anti-terror measures of dubious efficacy often get to take an endless toll. Pointless measures must be periodically revised, but too many things survive long past their utility.

Fifteen years ago today was the day when nine of the 10 terrorists who attacked Mumbai were liquidated and the NSG began its mopping-up operations, ending Operation Black Tornado on the morning of 29 November. But the damage continues till date and probably will in perpetuity.

Terror attacks are a weapon of war and the principal strategic objective of all wars is damaging the adversary economically. While the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai caused about 170 fatalities, hundreds of injuries and millions of dollars of property damage, that was tiny compared to its long-term impact.

Any government reeling under a shock like 26/11 or the 9/11 attacks in the US, or 7/7 in London, deploys a slew of security measures in its aftermath. The modus operandi of the last attack drives the design of most counter-measures; so every hotel, airport, mode of public transport, mall, shopping centre and theatre now has baggage and car scanners, metal detectors, sniffer dogs, turnstiles and a massive increase of security personnel. Internal security, which already accounts for a substantial portion of government expenditure, is ramped up exponentially, diverting funds meant for developmental purposes towards a largely non-productive purpose. Every baggage scanner means an X-ray machine less, every metal detector means one less ventilator in a hospital. Every new security organization created deprives the nation of thousands of personnel who could have been gainfully employed elsewhere. This requires billions of dollars of capital and operational expenditure in perpetuity. The recent loss of five young lives of our elite special forces is a reminder of Pakistan’s “return of investment" on terror as a strategy. But it doesn’t end there.

Apart from this huge calculable outflow, there are several other costs that the nation pays. Loss of opportunity for tourism, raising of insurance premiums, lowering of investor confidence in a country seen to be dangerous, and the psychological impact of all-pervasive surveillance and security measures, apart from its corrosive effect on democracy, are all incalculably costly in the long run. On top of this is the loss of velocity of virtually all movement, be it of goods, people or money, congealing the flow of the global economy. Aircraft have lower utilization because of security delays, cash registers in malls slow, and there is a ‘security surcharge’ that we pay. It is like throwing a handful of sand into a well-oiled machine.

Many measures that are deemed necessary are not necessarily effective. Fifteen years later, barring airports and perhaps a few government installations, anti-terror measures are largely a farcical ritual that do not really improve security. Take, for example, the ritual of checking of cars before entering hotels or malls. The mechanistic action of opening the vehicle’s hood and trunk and running a mirror under and a dog along its sides achieves nothing. Yet, this rite happens millions of times every day. Likewise, every man, woman and child being frisked before being allowed into a public place is irrelevant; all the attackers of 26/11 actually stormed into their target hotels firing weapons. The next terror attack will not follow previous attack vectors, and yet, once a ritual has begun, it is nigh impossible for it to be stopped or rationalized.

This phenomenon is not unique to the government. All major organizations have similar rituals created in an erstwhile era for an erstwhile purpose. Yet, over time, these pointless rituals attain sacrosanct status, beyond questioning. Despite seismic social changes and the advent of technologies like machine learning and AI, not to speak of concomitant social changes, especially among the young, we see the persistence of old organizational structures, annual appraisals, top-down communication, an over-emphasis on academic credentials, one-size-fits-all training programmes and other outdated management practices. For instance, there is often a greater focus on measuring an employee’s physical presence in the office rather than her intellectual contribution. Rather than evolving structures that encourage collaboration, companies still implement frameworks like performance bell curves that foster fratricide. Employees who work 14-hour shifts are lauded, while firms should worry about a sure deterioration in their quality of life and thus work contribution. There is ‘sanctioned’ double speak between articulated cultures and unarticulated expectations.

In February 2021, while advocating the need for change, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cited the story of Churchill’s Cigar Assistant. This was a post created in the chief secretary’s office of Tamil Nadu to ensure a supply of cigars to Winston Churchill, who was particularly fond of cheroots from Tiruchirappalli. Though Churchill lost polls in 1945 and India won its independence in 1947, this post continued for several decades, and only came to light after the state government set up a commission to revise employee salaries! There are probably millions of ‘Churchill’s Cigar assistants’ in our professional and personal ecosystems who have long lost their relevance, but still drain scarce resources because it’s easier to go along with the status quo than to challenge it. But it’s a very expensive way to go on.

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