My latest column (Dev 360) in The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle

There’s safety in the nitty-gritty
Sep 13, 2011

Patralekha Chatterjee

Eight years ago, while researching a report on awareness about HIV and AIDS in India, I spent an afternoon at the Inland Container Depot at Tughlakabad, on the outskirts of Delhi. A lanky young man working with an NGO was holding “classes” for truck drivers in a shed. He began by asking the young men about their day (and night) on the road. Once rapport had been established, he got into more personal issues, testing his listeners’ knowledge of HIV/AIDS. Eventually, the sensitive issue of condom use popped up. He did not merely say, “Have safe sex.” He took out a wooden demonstration penis and showed his students how to slip on a condom and how to take it off, clarifying doubts about the many things that could go wrong in the process. There were questions from the crowd. Some sought one-to-one time with him later. I remember a remark by a 21-year-old truck driver who was standing next to me that afternoon. “Like everyone else who drives trucks on the highway, I have seen posters about AIDS. I know AIDS kills. I also know that I ought to have safe sex. But no one actually told me what to do next, where to go, how you slip on a condom, till today.”
Talking about AIDS and security in the same breath may seem incongruous. But there is a takeaway message in the anecdote relevant to our current discussions about security. “Have safe sex” messages worked when they were followed by nuts-and-bolts information on what exactly to do and not do, where to go for more information, and who to turn to if one was in doubt. Ditto with security.
There has been a lot of talk about security since last Wednesday’s “briefcase” bomb blast in front of Delhi high court’s gate no. 5. We know there are weaknesses in the current security system and we know that it needs to be strengthened. The focus on the larger issues underpinning security is welcome. But we also urgently need to know more about the specific actions that individuals and institutions need to take in the short, medium term and long term to tone up security preparedness in these times of terror. In short, we need to dwell a lot more on the details. Just as AIDS advocacy achieves little if it is confined to “AIDS kills” and “Have safe sex” posters, security advocacy will also achieve little unless statements are translated into action-points — what to do, what not to do, how to make sure one is doing it right, and what to do when something is not working.
The discussion on security technology provides a telling illustration. There is a widespread belief that in view of repeated terror attacks in the country, better security technology and more specialised equipment are urgently needed. Investing heavily in security technology, however, will not automatically lead to better security unless many other things are done.
It is a bit like safety features in cars. Such features are necessary but not sufficient. Equally important is training the driver to use those features, actions of other people on the roads, the training they’ve had, the decisions they make,
and the milieu they are operating in. The same is true of security.
Investigators of September 7 blast face a serious handicap because there were no CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras at the gate, though there had been an attack near another gate earlier this year. The high-decibel discussion on CCTVs will ensure that Delhi high court soon has CCTVs everywhere. Many other institutions will follow suit. But installation is only the first step. Without proper operation and maintenance, even state-of-the-art equipment is of little use.
Over and beyond security equipment is the question of security consciousness and that, along with the equipment, needs to be monitored. In nuts-and-bolts language, that means tasking specific persons to do specific jobs and holding them accountable for it.
In this context the Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s latest (2011) report on security management in the Indian Railways is revealing. According to the report, a surprise check to gauge the preparedness and alertness of security staff at 15 railway stations deemed to be at “high risk” revealed the following: Out of 470 CCTV cameras/monitors at these stations, 76 were not working. Two of the 15 stations had no CCTV. Out of 96 door-frame or walk-through metal detectors (DFMDs) in the 15 stations, 32 per cent were found to be non-functional. Baggage scanners had been provided at only five of the 15 stations.
Out of 137 authorised gates, 41 had no DFMDs. And of these 41 gates, only 59 per cent were found to be manned by security personnel. In only three stations out of the 15 did passengers have to go through any checks. Disturbingly, there were 106 unauthorised entry points at these 15 stations. No security personnel were deployed at these entrances except at one station. At one major station, Sealdah in Kolkata, nearly 68 per cent of the DFMDs were out of order. At the Jharsuguda station of South Eastern Railway Station, which falls in Maoist-affected terrain, there were several unauthorised entry points
and no door-frame metal detectors. The two that had been installed had gone for repair. There were no baggage scanners or CCTVs either at this station.
Railway stations are by no means the only places where necessary security equipment is either lacking or not working. The broad message when security gizmo talk is at its peak is: installation alone is not action.

Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies
and can be reached at


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