Page last updated at 13:04 GMT, Thursday, 11 December 2008

Will India's security overhaul work?

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Delhi

Indian commandos during Mumbai attacks
India plans to boost commando forces
The good news is that the Indian government has announced what many are calling a "major overhaul" of the country's internal security after the Mumbai attacks.

The bad news is that it is still not clear how authorities plan to press ahead with their plans in the face of what many security experts see as near-insurmountable odds, fundamental deficiencies and a serious lack of resources.

Interior Minister P Chidambaram has announced a raft of measures to boost security - setting up a federal investigation agency, strengthening coastal security, training more commandos, beefing up anti-terror laws, and filling vacancies in depleted intelligence agencies.

What he did not mention is the lack of instructors, police officers, infrastructure, laws and money which, experts say, will definitely hinder the government's well-meaning plans to make India safer.

"There is seriousness in the intent of announcing these measures. But the plans don't emphasise the main priority areas," says Delhi-based security analyst Dr Ajai Sahni.

Lack of money

For example, the plan to set up an ambitious federal investigation agency has befuddled experts. They say it is too grandiose given India's limited resources and poor track record on managing federal intelligence and investigative agencies.

And then there is the question of money, or lack of it.

One pointer: the Indian government's annual budget on policing in a country of over a billion people is $3bn. In comparison, the US's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) alone has an annual budget of $7.1bn for securing the lives of 300 million people.

Experts say there is very little clarity on what role the federal investigation agency will play.

India already has a federal Intelligence Bureau (IB) which gathers intelligence relating to internal security and is akin to the UK's MI5 or the US's FBI. The Research and Analysis Wing (Raw) is akin to the UK's MI6, responsible for external intelligence.

India's top detective agency - the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) - has a charter to investigate certain crimes.

Policeman guarding coastline in Gujarat, India
India's maritime security has gaping loopholes
Experts are wondering where the new federal investigation agency will fit in.

Will it be an upgraded version of the IB or CBI? If it is expected to handle terror attacks, will it be armed with fresh laws in a country where law and order is a state subject? Will it have federal powers to arrest unlike the IB?

There are other pressing questions: does this new agency bypass the local police and completely take over the investigation of offences committed in different states?

Then there is the question of manpower.

Experts wonder where the officers for the new agency are going to come from: the CBI and IB are already operating at 35% below strength.

'Destined for disaster'

So will the new national investigation agency need a new cadre of officers who will be hired through separate examinations?

Security analysts like Dr Sahni say the new agency is "destined for disaster".

"Here the government cannot run a 50-officer federal detective agency like the CBI and they are talking about an overarching federal investigations agency which will work on all facets of terrorism," he says.

The interior minister also announced plans to bolster commando forces around the country - setting up 20 counter-insurgency, anti-terrorism schools and separate commando forces for every state.

But lack of adequate training academies and most important, lack of instructors will almost certainly stand in the way of any quick progress on this front.

States like Chattishgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Indian-administered Kashmir have set up their training academies and set up their own commando forces with mixed results.

The Taj Mahal hotel during Mumbai attacks
Attacks on Indian cities have been on the increase
But using those commandos to tackle urban terrorism and hostage rescue operations is not likely to yield results, experts say.

Essentially, as security analyst Praveen Swami says, India needs elite crack units like Swat (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams trained in counter-terrorism and hostage rescue, taking on heavily-armed criminals. They need to be equipped with the state-of-the-art weapons, communications and body-armour.

The announcement of a new "coastal command" has also left most security experts wondering what it is all about.

Currently, the police (patrolling up to five km from shore), coast guard (patrolling between five and 20 km from shore) and the navy (patrolling beyond 20km from shore) are entrusted with securing India's 7,500km coastline.

Weakest link

The marine police, the last line of coastal defence, are the weakest link with little training and near non-existent infrastructure.

But there is no mention in the government's plan of strengthening the marine police.

"What is important is capability building, teaching people skills, providing them infrastructure," says Praveen Swami.

Another grey area is beefing up anti-terror laws: experts are not sure whether India needs new laws. They say reforming the existing laws will serve the purpose.

Most lawyers say India has a plethora of laws, both local and federal, to tackle crime and terror. These include strong federal preventive detention and anti-money-laundering laws.

They say some of the loopholes could be closed - for example, the fact that Indian courts still don't accept confessions by a person in custody. So the need is to reform that and make confessions legally admissible evidence by videotaping them or recording them in front of magistrates.

"A new law will not fix a problem. If you have a boat full of terrorists sailing into Mumbai despite intelligence, then a new law is not going to stop the terrorists from coming in," says Supreme Court lawyer Menaka Guruswamy.

"More laws cannot solve governance issues like this."

There is also no word on a massive push for local police forces who toil with low wages and antiquated equipment - the so-called quick response team of the Maharashtra police, for example, has not fired a single shot in the past year because of the lack of ammunition.

"Let us not fool ourselves. We are looking at least a five-year roadmap for fundamental changes. I am not sure whether the government is talking about that. There can be no quick fix," says Praveen Swami.

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