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Cops, VVIPs and Airports

Omkar Goswami

A strange title, isn’t it? A much larger, but more complete title could have been “How We Never Question The Dysfunctional Things That Cops Do”. Let me share with you four cases where our security forces do things that make no sense, needlessly harass citizens, and confer disproportionately high petty power to those in authority. These relate to Bombay and Delhi. I’m sure they can be replicated in all our other metros.

On 16 March this year, the Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet, arrived in India with a delegation of ministers, industrialists and CEOs. She and her entourage visited Bombay on 18-19 April. Here are two tales worth recounting.

The delegation was staying at the Taj Hotel. Given what happened there on 26 November, there was every reason to be careful. However, the ham-handed way in which Bombay’s finest tried to ring fence and seal the Taj, Apollo Bunder and the Gateway of India was inefficient and annoying in equal measure. Consider this. Somewhere around 3 pm on 18 April, Ms. Bachelet was supposed to depart from the Taj. The entire area — that is, all four sides of the hotel — was cordoned off for almost 45 minutes. No cars were allowed to either pick up or drop guests. With their customary rudeness, the policemen kept on abusing drivers and diverting cars going to the hotel. Guests had to disembark more than 200 metres away, and lug their suitcases. I was one such.

We in India consider this to be a normal part of ‘VVIP’ movement. Why so? If the Chilean President was to leave at, say 3.30 pm, there was no need to shut all roads leading to the Taj Hotel any earlier than 3.20 pm. And keep them closed for more than five minutes after her departure. Fifteen minutes were sufficient. The streets of Washington DC aren’t shut down for 45 minutes awaiting President Obama’s motorcade. Nor London when Gordon Brown perambulates to and from Downing Street. Why does such nonsense happen in India? The answers: police inefficiency; the exalted notion of our cops that they can put others through difficulties without any valid explanation; and our lack of protest.

My second example was what I saw the very next day. Some time in the afternoon, President Bachelet was to be driven to the airport. From Taj onwards, the route was crawling with police. Fair enough. The Chilean President is a VVIP and must get high security protection. But guess what? Lolling around the footpaths of Marine Drive, Chowpatty, Hughes Road, Peddar Road, Haji Ali, Worli were hundreds of cops carrying lathis. I started counting the bunches that congregated around major traffic lights. Typically, there would be 20-odd cops lounging around. Of these, 17 or 18 had only lathis, and the rest carried pistols which I guess they hadn’t used for months on end. What is this other than a charade of protection? Lathis are great to whack protesters, hawkers and hapless beggars. Never heard of a rattan cane as a terrorist protection tool. And why were so many effectively useless cops hanging around? VVIP movement!

My third example has to do with the hundreds of police check-posts that constrict the roads of Delhi. The worthies manning them are supposed to keep an eye out for terrorists, thugs, robbers and other unsavoury chaps. Their key activity: flagging every third motorcyclist ostensibly to check their licences and pollution certificates; and so collect a tidy pile of bribes which, doubtless, are distributed each evening at the police station. I pass two such check-post every day in Delhi. And I’ve been watching them very closely. Believe me, that exactly what they do.

Finally, the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which mans our airports. Gernerally better trained people, compared to your typical Delhi or Bombay cop. Even so, here’s point number 1: No major airport in the world has cops checking the tickets and identities of passengers as they enter the airport. Why us? Point number 2: If at all there is some mysteriously important reason for doing so, why do the guards insist on photo identity for those having e-tickets, and not for those having the old-fashioned ticket coupons? Point number 3: Why can’t we have consistent rules? If jackets need to be taken out and placed on trays, why not implement it everywhere? Point number 4: Why must there be three levels of security by the same agency: when entering; when hand luggage is X-rayed and you are frisked; then again when you are about to board? Does the CISF not trust the quality of its own people? Aren’t there ways of making the system more efficient?

We are surrounded by serious terrorist threats. Do these examples make you feel that our security chaps can deal with them, when the next one happens?

Published: Business World, April 2009


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