Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Appalling Security at the Delhi Metro

The stares were coming thick and fast. First, I noticed one man, then a young couple; then people from the queue next to me. ‘Why are they looking at me?’ I thought. So I turned around and there it was: a small black cylinder, lying on the platform just a few inches from my feet. 

I’ve been in one genuine bomb threat before in Israel. This though, was the middle of Rajiv Chowk, Delhi’s most crowded metro station.

I instinctively backed away to safety. Most of the crowd had already done the same. A private security guard, sensing something was wrong, walked towards the cleared-out area. What I’m about to describe is the unvarnished truth. It happened yesterday evening at about 6:15.

The guard first stared at the cylinder for several seconds; then hurriedly left. In that time, he did not even once attempt to form a cordon. He returned with another private security guard after about 20 seconds. This was surprising since direct threats should be reported to the CISF, which is primarily responsible for metro security.

The two guards now stood side-by-side staring at the device. After a brief consultation, one of the guards bent over, picked up the device and placed it near the edge of the platform. He then straightened up and walked off. End of story.

Some of you may say I worried too much. Metro stations use X-ray scanners and metal detectors, don’t they? Yes they do. I’ve experienced this procedure twice daily, five days a week, for the past six months.
Let me describe it to you. The average CISF policeman takes five seconds to pat down a passenger with his metal detector. The average X-ray machine takes about the same time for each bag. That’s roughly 720 passengers every hour during rush hour.

Compare this to the time it takes to get through security at an airport. Now consider the fact that the scanning technology used on the Delhi metro is at least one generation behind what is used at airports.
Are you entirely certain Metro security is spotting every suspicious device? I’m not.

That is why I am simultaneously appalled and frightened at how the private security guards reacted. They did not ask passengers to move away. They did not alert the CISF who are presumably trained to handle such an incident. They did not form a cordon until a more trained security staffer arrived. Instead, they picked up the device in their untrained, bare hands, while passengers stood just a few feet away. If that wasn’t bad enough, they then placed it near the edge of the platform instead of taking it to a secure location. And left! 

Contrast this to my experience at the Jerusalem Central bus station. There too, they have X-ray scanners and metal detectors. No one and nothing gets in without a scan (they even scan passengers coming in after their journeys). While waiting for a bus, I heard an announcement asking whether any passenger had left a bag in one of the bathrooms. The message was repeated after a few seconds. 

Later, I narrated the incident to a colonel with the IDF, he replied simply “We can’t take any chances” (emphasis his). I asked him what would happen if no one claimed it. He said the area would be cordoned off and the bomb squad would move in and destroy the bag, no questions asked.

Once earlier, my own bag became the subject of such an announcement. I had arrived in Zurich on a flight from Germany and was headed to Delhi. In other words, I had passed through security at one of the EU’s most high-tech airports.

While waiting for my flight, I walked over to a duty free store 10 feet from where I was sitting. My camera equipment was rather heavy, so I left it on the chair. I hadn’t even reached the store when an announcement came on over the PA system. “Please do not leave any baggage unattended”.

It hadn’t played out in the 30 minutes I had been waiting. I hurried back to my bags. It did not play out for the next one hour. I can only assume it had been directed at me. Security had reacted within seconds. Even in a transit lounge, where passengers had flown in from a very high-security airport, they didn’t take any chances.

In India, though, life is cheap.


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