Every November 26, Indians join in mourning the 166 children, women and men who died in the carnage inflicted by a Lashkar-e-Taiba terror squad in 2008, and the 18 police and National Security Guard personnel who died defending Mumbai. There are solemn speeches, wreaths are laid — and then, the nation chooses to forget. This newspaper reported, on Thursday, that one key coastal security outpost charged with protecting Mumbai consists of two police officers sitting in a bamboo shack; near-identical investigative reports have been carried each year. This month’s massacre in Paris has served notice, if one was needed, that cities across the world are vulnerable to mass violence. The causes are varied: Terrorists seeking to coerce civil society or achieve political ends; nihilist death cults that simply wish to kill as many perceived enemies as they can; people with mental illnesses who happen to get hold of a gun. First responders — police, medical services, the fire brigade — all need to be prepared and equipped to deal with such scenarios.
The truth is this: though the Union government had promised thoroughgoing national security reforms in the wake of 26/11, little has happened. Though hundreds of crores have been spent on police modernisation, there has been no audit of how police capacity has developed. There are no metrics of performance state police forces are expected to achieve. Training standards are poor. Few officers get one session at a firing range in an entire year, due to budget constraints, let alone specialist training. India’s police forces remain understrength — and this based on human-resource levels drawn up in the 1970s. The Intelligence Bureau has slashed training times by half to meet shortages, but remains 30 per cent understrength. To make things worse, the Union government ended funding for modernisation programmes this year, hoping the states would add enhanced Central funds they were given for that purpose. Not one single state government has done so.
In Paris, police responded to SOS calls in minutes, and ended the standoff in the Bataclan theatre inside two hours. Their special weapons and tactics units had rehearsed scenarios like these for years, studying, among other things, the Mumbai experience. Following the Boston marathon bombing, not one patient was lost after they arrived in hospital, because doctors had practised for just such an eventuality. Even though Singapore and London haven’t had mass casualty attacks, they rehearse such eventualities several times a year. Perhaps India cannot aspire to these first-world standards, but it bears mention that many of them require expertise and practice, not large funds outlays. This November, it is perhaps time to stop grieving those we have lost, and instead demand that the government act to ensure the highest possible standards of safety for those who live.