Page last updated at 13:13 GMT, Tuesday, 2 December 2008

'Rot' at heart of Indian intelligence

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Mumbai

An Indian commando in Mumbai
India's commando forces took hours to reach the battle in Mumbai

The blame game over who was responsible for bloody terror attacks in the western Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay) has a sense of déjà vu about it.

Security experts have criticised the response to the attacks, which left nearly 200 people dead, as "amateurish, sluggish and feeble".

Indian intelligence agencies are leaking information that they gave about half a dozen warnings to the government in Maharashtra state - of which Mumbai is the capital.

The reports say Maharashtra was warned that strikes were being planned on city landmarks, including, possibly, the Taj Mahal hotel at the historic Gateway of India.

Authorities in Mumbai flatly deny that they received any tip-offs. "It is unimaginable that we would have got this sensitive information and not react," says state Interior Secretary Chitkala Zutshi.

Knee-jerk responses

But security experts confirm that information extracted from a group of Indian and Pakistani men arrested in northern India earlier this year revealed that some men belonging to Pakistan-based groups had done a reconnaissance of major landmarks in Mumbai. The agencies had also been picking up militant chatter on attacks in the city.

The police in India are working on manpower and equipment assessments last made in the 1970s
Security analyst Praveen Swami

Yet the local police and intelligence agencies appeared to have failed to act on any of the information - despite doubts as to whether the information was shared promptly enough between the Mumbai authorities.

This is a story which keeps repeating itself in a country which has been hit by over half a dozen big "terror attacks" this year - the central and local security authorities trade charges over the sharing and quality of intelligence, followed by knee-jerk responses and investigations which fizzle out in a couple of years.

The attacks and their aftermath again point to the rot that has set into the country's internal security system and a lack of cohesion between civilian and security wings of the government.

One telling example: six days after the attack, even the number of dead and injured keeps going up and down, due to poor co-ordination between the police and hospitals.

More seriously, the Indian police appear to be incapacitated by a lack of money and training. Poor working conditions, rudimentary surveillance and communications equipment, inadequate forensic science laboratories and outdated weaponry are making matters worse.

"The Mumbai attacks prove that the whole system is falling apart. The police in India are working on manpower and equipment assessments last made in the 1970s," says security analyst Praveen Swami.

The fact that the gunmen came by sea - and sneaked into the city through a crowded fishing colony - points to almost non-existent coastal police patrols, as a local officer admits.

All that the police have is a couple of launches. They have no radar.

The Mumbai police - like most police in India - remain in a time warp: they are equipped with World War II vintage rifles and carbines handed down by the army. In most states, an average policeman's salary and status is equivalent to that of an unskilled municipal worker, encouraging corruption.

Inadequate protection

Budgets do not extend to supplying food to police personnel on shift, so many end up extorting food from street hawkers. They also routinely hitch free rides because they don't have enough vehicles.

Indian soldier patrols outside Nariman House
Training and faster response times are urgently needed, critics say

Bullet proof vests are of inferior quality and phone interception equipment remains largely rudimentary.

And three years after the central government announced the setting up an ambitious National Police Mission to set out the future needs and requirements of the force, nothing has happened.

India's commando forces are also not exactly in good shape.

A group of the elite 7,400-strong National Security Guards (NSG) - who were flown in to Mumbai eight hours after the attacks - is based near the capital, Delhi. Many of the commandos, say experts, are wasted in giving protection to politicians and other VIPs.

The country's best commando force does not have its own aircraft. As a result, it has become used to spending hours reaching crisis locations, with mixed results.

"On average, the commando force has taken six to seven hours to reach and begin their operations and get their act together every time they have been called for. There have been delays," says Praveen Swami.

He says the commandos have been trained to rescue small groups of people. "They have not been trained on multiple location operations of such scale."

'No way to fight terrorism'

Any deficiencies in their training may be explained by the fact that a Mumbai-type attack only happens very rarely.

Attackers arrived by sea, police say

That is why Indian security experts like Ajai Sahni say that the response to the attacks was so poor.

"This is no way to fight terrorism," he says.

After the Mumbai attacks, the local government announced it would set up a state commando force: to begin with, some 500 armed men would be ready in four months.

This, when the basic training for the NSG commandos takes six months. And Maharashtra, along with other states, has no commando training centres.

A number of states where there have been attacks by Maoist rebels plan to raise their own commando forces, but early results point to hasty, faulty planning.

The authorities in eastern Orissa state, for example, hired 8,000 new policemen for anti-Maoist operations, but found to their dismay that it took six months to train just 350 of them.

There are allegations that many of the candidates paid bribes to get into the force.

Commandos with sniffer dogs outside the Taj Mahal Hotel
India is seen as a 'soft' target

Painfully slow and lazy bureaucracy means that the modernisation of the security forces often takes ages. Police in Uttar Pradesh state took four years to buy imported surveillance equipment.

By the time it arrived, it had become outdated and now lies disused. One police official even paid by his own credit card to pick up a piece of $60 equipment from a foreign website for his forces because it would have taken him months, if not years, to acquire it.

With their bureaucratic ways of working, the intelligence agencies are also struggling.

There is a dearth of language specialists. India's spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), is reported by insiders to have only two Arabic and two Chinese language specialists, hired from language schools.

But the best do not stay on because of poor wages, and one of the Chinese language specialists who was trained in cyber-technology quit to join one of India's top industrial groups.

"Things have to begin from scratch to boost internal security in India. Authorities should come clean to the people and tell them how bad the situation is and set time-bound targets to begin improving security infrastructure," says Praveen Swami.

Otherwise, he warns, India will continue to be one of the softest targets for terror strikes in the world.

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