After Brussels, Indian airports may well be sitting ducks

The terror strike at Brussels’ Zaventem Airport on Tuesday must have certainly made Indian security agencies terribly uncomfortable. For all that is being touted, Indian airports may well be sitting ducks for the evil designs of radical militant groups.

Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport

Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport

In January, when a group of four of us took an early morning flight out of Chennai (or Madras once) airport, the guard at the entrance to the main terminal — beyond which are check-in counters — scrutinized merely my photo identity card, letting the other three with me walk into the building without even a cursory look at their papers! Probably, the guard was on a night shift, and tired.

Last November, a guard at the security check at the Dabolin Airport in the western Indian state of Goa must have been so harassed by the unusually huge crowds that day that he did not ask me to even remove my notebook computer from the case — as is the norm. He just waved me through saying it was okay.

And I know from frequent air travellers how easily one can distract a guard at a security check post by merely talking to him about a pressing political issue or a hot movie star or some such thing.

And despite all this — and more importantly after the attack on Brussels — the Director-General of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF/in charge of airport safety), Surender Singh, reportedly ruled out a “review of security checks now in place at airports in India”.

In fact, there is a very serious security issue that needs to be examined and quickly.  Bags carried by air travellers are scrutinized only after they have been checked in at the counters. And hand baggage goes through a scanner much later in the security check zone.

So, in effect, a terrorist can walk into an airport building — and right till the check-in counters and even the security check area — with all the bombs he wants to.

It is only at Srinagar airport in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir that all bags are examined before a passenger enters the terminal complex.

Quizzed whether the Srinagar system will be replicated in other Indian airports, Singh said a categorical no. This would lead to a massive pile-up of people at the airports and flight schedules could go haywire, he said.  “One needs to balance the safety requirements with the smooth movement of passenger traffic through airports,” Singh told the media.

Airports around the world have three kinds of security procedures. Admittedly, the strictest one is where travellers and their bags are scrutinized before they step into a terminal. Israel follows this, and so does Jammu and Kashmir.

The second is known as the security hold area arrangement. Here passengers are scanned after they have collected their boarding passes and just before they get into a plane. This is the most common form practised in most airports across continents.

But I do remember in India there used be an additional screening of passengers and their handbags on the aerobridge or, when this facility was not available, at the bottom of the steps leading to an aircraft. This is the third type of security scheme, known as the “boarding gate” plan.

Admittedly, Indian airports have been placed on higher alert after the Brussels tragedy. But the question that many Indian fliers will ask is, is enough being done.

I have always felt that security in India is somewhat lax, and this is not just at the airports or railway stations (where the security drill is a mere formality).

Take shopping malls and star hotels. A doctor, Narayana Reddy, says that those “who go to the Express Avenue Mall in Chennai can get into the building after parking their vehicles without any security check worth the name. But strangely, those who do not bring their cars or two wheelers and use the main mall entrance are scanned.”

One does not know how fool-proof the security is at big hotels, but we all know what happened at Mumbai’s (once Bombay) Taj Mahal Hotel, which stands facing the Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea. Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab and others members of the outfit, Lashkar-e-Toiba, had virtually turned one of  the hotel’s swanky rooms into an arsenal of weapons and bombs, and these men and their nefarious activity had gone unnoticed for several days before the terror strike in November 2008. The hotel’s security had been oblivious of the arms and ammunition being smuggled in. So was the house-keeping staff, which did not smell a rat even as it went about the daily routine — which includes the cleaning of guest rooms.

Such security lapses appear all the more frightening given the fact that India is a sitting duck for terrorists who sneak into the country from Pakistan. And the Islamic State (IS) has been warning of strikes in India.

In January, the Delhi police arrested four IS members aged between 19 and 23. These men said they were in touch with their handlers in Syria and Iraq, and planning attacks before the January 26 Republic Day in New Delhi and during important festivals like Ardh Kumbh in Haridwar (in central India). They were also targeting shopping malls.

These arrests confirmed what till now had been mere suspicion. The IS is a real threat in India and there is a concerted move to radicalize Indian youth — disgruntled as they are because of unemployment and other grievances.

And public places in India like airports and railways stations, which attract huge numbers, are soft targets for terror groups.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and Seoul Times.

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