India's Overprotected Politicos

The Mumbai terror attacks on November 26, which have cast a long, dark shadow of terror across India, have brought the subject of the vast cocoon of security for India’s public figures under increasing scrutiny. Public anger is building at a system in which, for instance, more than 9,000 police, supplemented by hundreds of paramilitary guards, protect just 391 VIPs in New Delhi, while across India only one badly trained policeman is available on average for each 670 citizens.

The security of VIPs – politicians, ministers, members of parliament and legislative assemblies, bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, senior journalists and sundry others, has always been a contentious issue, with a widespread public perception that political importance is at least partly determined by the number of personnel guarding them.

Lately, however, public outrage has risen given the spate of terror attacks across the country that have killed hundreds and exposed the police’s ill-preparedness to deal with sophisticated terror threats. It took 10 hours, for instance, to get an elite police unit in place to counter the murderous attackers that hit Mumbai, and three days to mop them up.

Fuel has been added to the debate by the New Delhi-headquartered Bureau of Police Research and Development, which released data showing 45,846 government security personnel are deployed to guard 13,319 VIPs across the country. This number, the bureau states, is more than the collective police strength in any single Indian city and comes at a gargantuan taxpayer cost. An estimated Rs8.25 billion (US$170.3 million) is funneled into annual salaries to guard public figures.

“In India, VIPs assume that excess security for them comes with the territory,” says a home ministry official who preferred anonymity. “They justify heavy duty policing by arguing that they are easy `targets’ for terrorists. Of course much of the time, the fear is both baseless and imaginary.”

The security apparatus in India is divided into five categories in which the Special Protection Group is an elite force allotted to the president, prime minister and heads of state, followed by Z Plus, Z, Y and X categories. Z Plus and the categories above it are manned by National Security Guard “black cat” commandos. Six personal security officers, two head constables, 12 constables, a pilot vehicle and an escort are available for each public figure.

The public uproar over excess security hasn’t had much effect. Although the Union Home Ministry recently ordered that such cover must be trimmed to add police to protect the public, the police withdrew just 100 officers from VIP duty -- then redeployed them to protect a fresh lot of VIPs.

In New Delhi alone, top politicians including Union ministers enjoy security in excess of what they are entitled to as do state chief ministers. The Punjab chief minister, for instance, is protected by more than 1,000 men. More than 10 percent of the state's 70,000 security personnel protect the state’s VIPs. The state's first family is protected by a full battalion of police commandos in addition to three detachments of the crack National Security Guard NSG), scores of paramilitary personnel and ordinary baton-wielding policemen.

“Much of the security accorded to political figures is utterly unnecessary,” says political scientist Dr Neeraj Mehta of Benaras Hindu University. “In India, VIP security is more ceremonial than functional and has become a status symbol. This is laughable because gun-toting security personnel make VIPs easily identifiable and more vulnerable to attack.”

The Union Home Ministry acknowledged in Delhi High Court in August that those seeking protection overplay threat levels to become eligible for government accommodation. The Ministry also told the court the threat “should predominantly come from militants or terrorists,” and conceded that in the public perception, VIP security tends to connote a picture more of a VIP than security. “Often protectees were themselves found to entertain such perception and demand special privileges,” the ministry emphasized.

In response to the public interest litigation, the court expressed extreme displeasure at the deployment of excess security personnel to protect VIPs. To emphasize its point, the court sought a reply from the police about how well-equipped they were to tackle modern highly-trained terrorists and protect common people.

{mospagebreak}

The court, which termed VIP security “distasteful, obtrusive and obnoxious for the common people,” directed the Home Ministry to inform it of steps taken in cases where security threats had been overplayed or if there were instances of security being downgraded. The ministry says it is making a comprehensive review of VIP security. But none has been issued.

While the country’s potentates are receiving such treatment, according to the police research bureau, police protecting India’s citizens are not only undermanned and inadequately trained but ill-equipped. The 145.2 policemen per 100,000 of population is far below western standards. Italy, for instance, has 559 policemen per 100,000, the US, 326.4 and Australia 304. Even a tiny country like Nepal has 192.7 policemen per 100,000 citizens.

Training is also inadequate. The all-India average spend on police training is just Rs1,975 per policeman while in some states the figure is as low as Rs1,000. States like Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Maharastra, Manipur, Goa, Chandigarh and Andaman & Nicobar, for instance, all make do with an less than Rs1,000 annually. Annual expenditure on police training for all states and union territories was Rs2.73 billion for 2006-07, slightly higher than Rs2.8 billion for 2005-06.

To modernize and upgrade the country’s police force, the Indian government initiated a new Policy on Security of Individuals in 2001 which included an enhanced allocation for their training and upgrading equipment. Yet, per-capita expenditure continues to remain low, leading to a disgruntled staff that is low on both wages and morale.

As part of the new policy, “No security will henceforth be provided merely on the ground that the person concerned has occupied a sensitive position in the past. In all cases where purely positional security has been provided to an individual, the same shall be withdrawn on demission of the concerned office by him.”

In the meantime, police forces have begun complaining of being stretched too thin. This is because New Delhi has 391 VVIPs and VIPs and over 9,000 personnel, mainly from the Delhi police, supplemented by hundreds of paramilitary personnel drawn from forces like the Central Reserve Police Force, Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Central Industrial Security Force, providing what is being increasingly seen as an exercise in vanity.

The new VIP security policy can thus help to curtail excess security on the basis of “threat perception” and also to make it “less obtrusive without diluting efficacy’’. The Union Home Secretary said a professional group would conduct a review every six months to evaluate the parameters and upgrade or downgrade the available security to the protected persons.

The Home Ministry had also decided to rationalize the deployment of the National Security Guard black-cats who guard numerous VIPs. “The security would be provided at government cost only on comprehensive assessment of threat by security agencies and such threats should predominantly come from militants or terrorists,” noted the ministry.

In order to make security less obtrusive, the ministry has asked the protectees, especially those who have NSG guards that the black cats will not accompany them to public places like hotels or parks. In case they have to go, the security personnel will comprise plainclothesmen only.

However, in any Indian city, the ministry’s rules are openly flouted by the VIPs with impunity. Not only do they move around everywhere with a posse of guards, they also hold up traffic and inconvenience travelers with their security paraphernalia.

In addition, many erstwhile political leaders continue to hold on to their security details even though the `threat' that they faced disappeared long ago. This is largely due to political pressure or because they enjoy close proximity with the politicians in authority. “The ministry should forthwith ask for a complete security review, and then based on the recommendations downsize security personnel allotted to these VIPs,'' advises Dr. Mehta.

However, till that transpires, Indians will have no choice but to continue putting up with a skewed scenario in which there’s too much security for its VIPs and too little for the people.