Mumbai gets serious about security - for now

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Hotels and shops in Mumbai are installing closed-circuit televisions and scanners, while policemen in flak jackets are keeping an eye on train stations days after a siege by Islamist gunmen killed 171 people.

The attacks on two of Mumbai’s plushest hotels and eight other sites has sent businesses and homes scrambling for more protection, but the city’s security infrastructure was woefully inadequate and desperately needed an overhaul, experts said.

“People get serious about security only after something happens,” said Pramoud Rao, the Mumbai president of the non-profit Fire & Safety Association of India. “Otherwise, we Indians tend to think God will protect us.”

Demand for electronic security systems in India had spiked after recent attacks, including the 2006 suburban train blasts in Mumbai, and explosions in New Delhi and other cities this year.

Still, the total spent on electronic security systems is only about 18 billion rupees ($360 million) annually, Rao estimates.

Indian cities, in particular, which have been the focus of recent attacks, needed sophisticated surveillance systems and landmarks like hotels, places of worship, and train stations needed advanced security with easy access to emergency services.

“Most homes and offices now just have a poorly trained guard at the gate whom they pay $50 a month, and most security systems are focused on politicians and traffic violations,” Rao said.

But Mumbai, the financial hub and long a magnet for migrants, is a city of 18 million with a long coastline, and that made it harder to protect, said Julio Ribeiro, a former police chief.

“It’s not easy -- you can’t guard each and every place.”


A week after the attacks first began, security in the city was erratic.

At the main train station which was attacked last week, commuters could be seen rushing through scanners unopposed even when they flashed ‘Stop’, while armed policemen with sniffer dogs cursorily checked bags at random.

At other train stations, some policemen in flak jackets were reading newspapers or drinking tea during the morning rush hour, while the heavy police presence on the roads was visibly reduced.

In offices, private security guards were checking identity cards of employees, and in big hotels, bags and vehicles were scanned.

At the luxury Leela hotel, armed plainclothes security guards were patrolling every floor at intervals, an official said.

“We are doing it subtly, in an unobtrusive manner, as we don’t want to alarm guests,” said Mithu Basu, general manager for Leela’s corporate communications.

“Guests want to be assured we are taking security seriously.”

Mumbai’s police chief on Tuesday said they had received information that hotels like the Taj Mahal may be targeted following the blast at Islamabad’s Marriott hotel in September.

Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group that owns Taj hotels, has said security at the hotel had been beefed up weeks before.

But one guest that was trapped at the Trident Oberoi hotel during the siege said he had noticed how lax security was.

“There was one scanner at the entrance, and no one was monitoring it. Half the people were walking around it,” said Anil Malhotra, who was trapped on the 27th floor for 40 hours during the siege that killed 22 guests and 10 employees at the hotel.

P.R.S. Oberoi, Chairman of EIH Ltd, the owner of the Trident Oberoi Hotel, last week said it was difficult to balance security requirements with the luxury segment, but Malhotra disagreed.

“That’s just a cop out. I think everyone appreciates the need for security in today’s environment,” he said.

It was hard for luxury hotels to “pat down their guests with a smile,” Rao said, but they could not relax just yet.

“Our memory’s very short. We’ll forget all this soon and get back to what we were doing before. That’s the real danger.”

Editing by Simon Denyer