Urban security provision is an integrated challenge

18 November 2015

Despite terror attacks increasingly targeting cities, urban security provision continues to be an integrated challenge that involves more actors than the police. Following his previous post on citizen-led security and the complexities of creating order and security for the poorest in cities, Jaideep Gupte turns to the implications terror attacks that target cities might have on long term understandings of how security is provided.

In November 2008, members of the Pakistan based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) carried out 12 coordinated attacks on the coastal Indian city of Mumbai. Each militant was armed with an AK-47 rifle with 240 bullets, ten grenades, one 7.62 pistol with 14 rounds, a Nokia cell phone, and an RDX bomb. The group had a satellite phone and ‘battle rations’ of dried fruits to last them a few days. The group targeted popular cafes, hotels, a movie theatre, and the main train station amongst other crowded areas in their carefully orchestrated attack, killing 164 people.

The similarities between the Mumbai attack and the horrific events in Paris on Friday night are disconcerting. This brings into focus the increasingly urban geographies of violence. I find that while such terror attacks are viewed primarily through militaristic points of view, they also resonate with broader questions around everyday safety and security in cities. Though cities are viewed as economic powerhouses, urban security provision is rarely prioritised, nor is it seen as a concern that involves a range of actors beyond city police forces. Even when responding to extreme and sudden violence during incidents such as in Mumbai and now in Paris, citizen engagement and integrated approaches continue to be key pillars of security provision.

Below are excerpts from my interview with Mr Vappala Balachandran (Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India) who was appointed by the Government of Maharashtra to enquire into the police response to 2008 Mumbai attacks. [Note: the full interview will be published in the Cities, Violence and Order report].

JG: Can you describe why the 2008 Mumbai attack might be viewed as a watershed event?

VB: The Mumbai attacks were marked by several new features that were unique. For the first time heavily armed terrorists invaded India through a sea route and engaged in active combat, in a city, for almost 68 hours. The attacks unveiled a number of innovations in terrorist methodology. The most important of which was that the terrorists were directed by Pakistan based ‘handlers’, who utilized freely accessible media updates on electronic media as a guide. The terrorists followed guerrilla battle tactics…relying on grenades to keep the police away. Although police reached all the scenes within minutes, they could not face the heavily armed terrorists. Until the Central Government’s National Security Guards (NSG) came the folllowing morning, the local police had no defence against grenades. The simultaneous nature of the attacks led to severe panic among the police and public. The City Police Control Room received 1365 calls within a few hours. The most significant impact was the total loss of public confidence in the local police and in the Maharashtra government in protecting ordinary citizens.

JG: Has the attack changed how security provision in Mumbai is, or should be, delivered?

VB: A number of improvements like raising new forces, better weapons, equipment and improved methodology have been introduced by the Government of Maharashtra. The Central government also has now located detachments of National Security Guards (NSG) in other cities including Mumbai compared to the earlier practice of operating only from Manesar, near New Delhi. 

However, there are certain basic institutional inadequacies in the Indian system of State police handling terrorism. The State police in India have to do multifarious duties like crime control, preservation of law and order and protection of important persons. They are unable to act as counter-terrorist forces that need a different type of training. This is not possible with the mandatory laws in most states requiring periodical transfer of policemen after three years. These basic difficulties have not been addressed. The poor infrastructure of Mumbai and similar cities like Bengaluru will pose severe strain for easy movement of emergency response agencies to attend to crisis areas. The concerned government authorities while planning new roads or flyovers do not consult the police. Thus, in most cases, traffic safety is not a priority item when any new roads or flyovers are constructed.

Unfortunately an integrated approach to urban security provision does not exist in India. The only “reforms” in evidence are increasing numbers. Mumbai had 23,000 police personnel in the 1970s, 38,000 in the 1990s and 43,000 after 2000. If we continue to expand on this trend, Mumbai will soon have 75,000 policemen. Managing such a huge force will present serious logistical challenges. Merely recruiting policemen will not do. We also have a serious shortage of good police trainers.

Security provision, however, is a much wider challenge than increasing police numbers. It involves coordinating not just all emergency response services, but also planning and municipal agencies in the city. A strong police-public interface on security is needed, and setting up a system with a Public Information Officer as the one source for releasing information can help prevent rumours.

The ‘Cities, Violence and Order’ blog series can be followed by accessing the links on the right hand side.

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