India Refuses to Learn Lessons from Mumbai Attacks

The fifth anniversary of the deadly Nov. 26, 2008 terrorist attacks that shook India’s commercial capital of Mumbai has once again spotlighted glaring shortfalls in the country’s security apparatus that remain unaddressed.

On that fateful day, at around 9.30 pm, Mumbai came under siege by 10 Lashkar-e-Taiba gunmen who launched simultaneous attacks on six key locations across the city. The 60 hours of terror spread over four days, resulting in a loss of roughly US $1billion to Mumbai, industry body Assocham estimated.

The coordinated attacks killed 166 people, including policemen, National Security Guard commandos and some foreigners. Nine terrorists were killed by the security forces in the operation against them. The lone surviving Pakistani terrorist, Ajmal Amir Kasab, who was nabbed after the carnage, was hanged on Nov. 21 last year in India.

However, the tragic episode refuses to get any closure as the question that continues to preoccupy the country is – Is India any safer than what it was in 2008?

Unfortunately, India's response to security threats – security experts say – continues to be ad hoc and uncoordinated. The challenges Mumbai faces in preventing militant attacks are echoed in other cities of India, often crippled by ill-equipped police forces and bureaucracies unable to respond quickly to threats.

State police forces, the security analysts say, continue to suffer from a glaring deficit of arms and equipment as well as poor infrastructural support. Worse, the intelligence agencies, both the Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing, the nerve centers of the security apparatus, are reeling under a severe staff crunch.

“Even though Pakistani terrorists gained access to the country through the coast, even now India’s coastline continues to be vulnerable,” said Rajeev Bhaskar, a Mumbai-based security analyst. “The fact that terrorist organizations still prefer the sea route, as evidenced by the blasts that rocked Hyderabad this February that killed 17 people and injured 119, shows that India has still not been able to build up foolproof deterrent capabilities.”

India has been targeted at least 11 times by terrorists since the 2008 attack, according to government figures. One major attack on Mumbai killed at least 21 people on July 14, 2011, with three bomb blasts also injuring 141 people.

Worse, Bhaskar points out that India’s plans to establish a comprehensive coastal security mechanism in several phases since 2005 have not progressed satisfactorily. The country was to set up coastal police stations, provide boats, streamline responsibilities between the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard and ensure better intelligence coordination, adds the expert. “Unfortunately, none of that is in evidence today. Lack of political will and upcoming general elections have only made matters worse,” he added.

India was also to implement 46 static coastal radars, but today only 34 are up. Similarly, fishermen were promised biometric identity cards by the home ministry, registration for their vessels and communication equipment on their boats.

“But there’s scant progress on this initiative either,” said Bhaskar, who was formerly with the state-run Research and Analysis Wing.

A national committee on strengthening maritime security for quick and effective implementation was also set up with much fanfare. But over time the body has stopped meeting. Defense officers point out that often there’s also overlap of responsibility between the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard, while the use of special forces like the Navy’s Marine Commando Force also remains unsatisfactory.

The political failure to set up the much-vaunted National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) also poses a grave risk to national security. The NCTC mandate included streamlining intelligence collection and collation by bypassing the labyrinth of competing bureaucracies that undermine counter-terror operations. While the Center had initially announced the NCTC unilaterally, political opposition from the states and the opposition have hamstrung the plan.

A recent analysis of the status of three anti-terror initiatives of the UPA government, the National Intelligence Grid (Natgrid), National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) and the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems. Natgrid, a pet project of then home minister P. Chidambaram when he was home minister, lost momentum when he was shifted to the Finance Ministry. The system was meant to set up a sophisticated network to pull out data about any terrorist suspect within a matter of seconds,

Coastal security and disaster management is beset by poor cooperation. According to a former director general of police, recommendations, particularly on manpower deployment, weapons and coordination, have not been implemented and police personnel do not have adequate ammunition for training and practice.

The government has also failed to deliver on the critical issue of coastal security, as evidenced by a failed mock security drill in southern Hyderabad that exposed the chinks in armor of the Indian coastal security apparatus. Fake "terrorists" managed to breach coastal security in three places to enter the city. The policemen who posed as terrorists managed to reach the nerve center of the city without being intercepted even once.

“Partisan politics and a singular lack of vision have ensured that India doesn’t move forward from 26/11,” said a senior home ministry official on the condition of anonymity.

“India needs to take a leaf out of America’s book,” said Ram Naik of Madan Mohan Malviya Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank. “Post the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda, the United States created a department for homeland security which was tasked with creating a meticulous plan for securing its coasts. This has apparently worked very well as since then Washington hasn’t been plagued with such attacks.”

Indian businesses, which bore the brunt of the 26/11 attack, are still reserved about the country’s security set-up and top CEOs concede that while technological upgrades have taken place post-26/11, progress on many fronts is still tardy.

“It has been 13 years since 9/ 11. Since then, no major incident has occurred in the US. But terrorist attacks have happened here,” Ajay Piramal, Chairman of the US$ 700 million Piramal Group, said in a recent media interview. “I’m not confident that it won't take place again." Added Industrial Rahul Bajaj, Chairman of the 6-billion Bajaj Group, “I can only hope that my government has taken steps….that such an event will not happen again on Indian soil."

Video surveillance, analysts say, can be crucial in controlling crime. But just to give an example of one Indian city, while a record 6,000 CCTV cameras exist on paper in the government ministries in Mumbai, a laughable 100 cameras are installed across the city which hosts a whopping 26 million people.

26/11 was a reminder to everyone that India was on the radar of terrorists who were waiting to exploit the gaps in its security armor. Lives could have been saved had intelligence, reaction and preparedness worked in synchronicity. But unfortunately, even now India refuses to learn a lesson from that tragedy.