On November 26th 2008, ten heavily armed militants began a campaign of terror in Mumbai that held the city hostage for four days, resulting in the deaths of 164 people, and wounding over 300 more. The Mumbai attacks were notable not only for their scale but also for their strategic assault on civilian ‘soft targets’, including cinemas, hotels and railway stations to maximise fatalities.
India’s security apparatus was previously geared towards preventing attacks on international airports, government buildings and foreign consulates – and therefore allocated the majority of defence capabilities to these sites. Yet the 2008 attacks were not the first time soft targets were hit in Mumbai; 15 years earlier car bombs killed over 250 people in banks, bazaars and hotels in the very same city. But apparently, few lessons had been learnt.
A couple of months ago I carried out security audits at some of the most prominent office complexes in Mumbai; sites at the heart of the country’s commercial capital and as physically secure as they get.
Except they were not.
Yes, dozens of security guards line the perimeter of these complexes, and baggage scanners and metal detectors buzz in their lobbies – but they are still very much as insecure as they were a decade ago. In 2018 suited men with briefcases still walk through the lobbies of most major offices and hotels, triggering metal detectors without investigation, guarded by the relegation of security guards to receptionists, door-openers or direction givers.
What India continues to lack is a culture of security
What India continues to lack is a culture of security. Instead, expensive machines on lease and immaculate uniforms worn by guards with minimal readiness to respond to actual incidents give only the appearance of it. According to the Private Security Agencies Regulation (PSAR) 2005, private security guards must undergo at least 100 hours of classroom training and 60 hours of on-the-job training in the states where the regulations have been adopted. Although like much regulation governing commercial exchange, this is rarely enforced.
India’s private security sector is now worth well over US$6 billion (40,000 Crore) and is expected to double by 2020, but this is being disproportionately spent on hardware, rather than procedural measures and training. One x-ray machine operator I spoke to at a major commercial complex told me that they had received just 30 minutes training on how to use the machine before being charged with protecting the building from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Another security guard told me that the majority of the state-registered training course he attended focused on his presentation, with the rest of the time dedicated to fire-fighting and administering very basic first aid.
Emergency response plans are still non-existent at most sites. In the aftermath of the 2008 attacks, a great deal of attention was given to how unprepared the security guards of the Taj Hotel were when the attack began. One decade later I asked the building manager of a major Mumbai office complex to tell me how his team of 30+ security guards would respond to an active shooter situation occurring in the foyer of the building; “the priority has to be my men’s safety, we are not heroes and we are not armed, we cannot do anything but hide”.
More can be done to make office space safer
While it is true that the ability of unarmed security guards to respond to armed threat actors is limited, much more can be done to make office spaces safer. Lockdown procedures should be in place at every major complex – the security teams should be conducting scheduled drills on how to lock down their building quickly and effectively should an attack take place. Communications channels should be established that allow security guards to talk to each other, and act quickly when an incident takes place – rather than relying on loud shouts in each other’s directions when things go wrong.
It is not just the poor emphasis on training either. Healix have recently carried out security audits in Mumbai, Pune, Chennai and Bangalore – and have a network of local consultants that operate across the country. Something that recurs again and again is a lack of strategic planning. Buildings have two fortified entrances with guards on each door and thousands of dollars of equipment to carry out searches, but are undermined by the open fire door to the side of the building or the restaurant entrance in the back that has no checks in place at all.
Employees of these offices are also partly responsible for this absence of real security; their perception of baggage scans as an inconvenience, and lack of patience for security checks has contributed to a reality where security guards themselves often feel like an inconvenience. Even the minority of guards that do know how to carry out under car mirror checks properly are encouraged not to, being spared only a couple of seconds of inspection before vehicles are waved through to park underneath the workplaces of thousands of others.
One of the most difficult tasks facing those attempting to bring real security values to India is convincing those that live and work in the country that it is important. The ‘it won’t happen to me mentality’ pervades, despite the irrefutable reality that it already has, and the next attack could be just days away. The Lashkar-e-Taiba has not gone away, and while the Islamic State loses territory in Iraq and Syria it has lost none of its ability to inspire actions from afar.