Securing the skies

Print edition : April 22, 2005

Central Industrial Security Force personnel at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. A file picture. - SANDEEP SAXENA

With the burgeoning fleet of aircraft and number of passengers in India, impeccable airport security is crucial for the development of the civil aviation sector.

A FEW days ago, I was to fly out of the Kamaraj Domestic Airport in Chennai. My flight to Mumbai was at 7 a.m.. After checking in at the airlines counter, I stood in an unusually long queue for the security check. On inquiring about the reason for the serpentine queue, I was told that it was because the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) manning security at airports had suddenly reduced the number of counters to two from five. The numbers were approximate. The fact, however, was that the CISF had resorted to a drastic cut and this was possibly because of shortage of manpower. I reached the aircraft 40 minutes after I joined the queue. A few months ago, on landing in Mumbai or New Delhi (I don't clearly remember), my baggage took an eternity to reach the terminal. When I asked for reasons, the airlines staff told me apologetically that although the baggage had been quickly pulled out of the hold of the aircraft, the trailer carrying it could not cut across the tarmac to reach the terminal building because some flights were about to take off. These are two examples of how our airports are becoming nearly impossible to negotiate. Close on the heels of this comes the news that with the launching of two or three more private airlines, there may not be enough parking space for aircraft in our airports. Can anything be more ridiculous, if not hilarious, about civil aviation management in a country that claims to be among the fastest developing economies in the world, a claim which is genuine but does not match with the state of affairs on the ground in vital sectors such as civil aviation? Things are no doubt changing with work commencing on ultramodern airports in Mumbai and New Delhi. But the pace is disappointingly slow.

WHY am I concerned about our airports? One has to recall what happened on September 11, 2001, to find an answer. The hijackings took place on a busy morning when security was the least of the concerns, and getting as many aircraft airborne as quickly as possible was about the sole preoccupation of the ground personnel. In such a situation, security is of very low priority. The chaos that envelops our airports in the mornings when several flights take off at about the same time raises serious misgivings about the quality of security. If nothing untoward has happened in the recent past, it is not because there are no anti-national elements waiting to repeat 9/11 but because of the excellent vigil kept by the smart men and women of the CISF, a force that has become a pride of the Indian Police. They have not only been firm but are refreshingly polite and courteous even as they do their difficult duties. But then, how long can they perform without breaking down under stress?

The other day in Chennai they cleared hundreds of us in reasonable time without compromising on what they have to do in terms of frisking and keeping an eye on the baggage scanner. I am afraid that the system will collapse not very long from now. I am sure there are plans to recruit additional manpower for the CISF. How quickly can trained personnel take their place at our airports is a moot point.

The Kanishka tragedy, has many lessons to offer, although the tragedy took place two decades ago (Frontline, April 8). The acquittal of the two main accused highlights the weakness in investigating air mishaps. The judge dismissed the case merely stating that the evidence against the two men did not inspire confidence. Did that mean that there were others who were involved but whose identity was not known? Is not such a situation an incentive for future saboteurs to perpetrate Kanishka-like atrocities with absolute impunity? The Kanishka judgment is an invitation to crime, nothing less than that. The ease with which a bomb was placed in the aircraft sends shivers down our spine, and although technology has marched ahead tremendously since Kanishka to detect such explosives, the need for foolproof checking remains paramount. The chaos in our airports during busy hours raises grave concerns, and the travelling public would want to be assured that nothing would be left to chance.

WE have had several unsolved helicopter accidents in India, including the latest one in which two Haryana Ministers lost their lives. I concede these investigations call for substantial technical knowledge. What is the role of police agencies here? After every accident there is speculation that fuels controversies and theories of conspiracies. How do we resolve them? The expected growth of private aircraft, both corporate jets and helicopters, whose safety will be a concern, will call for a lot of investment in maintenance and manpower. Has the Ministry of Civil Aviation and its officials given enough thought to this? If this is not handled with a sense of urgency and professionalism, we are bound to see a rise in the number of accidents. There is a question of internal security here because many Ministers and legislators use aircraft hired from private aviation companies for their tours. The frequency of such use goes up during elections. There is just a cursory check on the background of these companies from whom aircraft are commissioned and the pilots they employ, as also their investment on mandatory maintenance. A full-fledged examination of the use of private aircraft from the points of view of both air safety and internal security is required.

THIS brings me to the related subject of the airlines that have just started operations in our country and those waiting in the wings. I am told that the domestic pool of experienced pilots is fast drying up or has already dried up. As a result, more and more foreign pilots are being employed to reinforce the existing strength. There is the question of how familiar these foreign pilots are with our skies and other environmental conditions. This has safety implications. More important, how much do we know about the background of these foreign pilots? I suppose they are vetted by the companies employing them. Is this supplemented by a similar check by security agencies? If this is not already in place, there is a major issue here for the National Security Adviser. If, however, there is already a process, the 9/11 experience compels us to fine-tune it periodically. Infiltration of the corps of foreign pilots employed by private airlines, for domestic and international operations, by forces inimical to India is a distinct possibility.

We are soon going to have mega airports in New Delhi and Mumbai. I suppose Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Hyderabad will follow soon. These no doubt have to be passenger-friendly without compromising basic security needs. These are vital installations that have to be protected from sabotage. As per the present scheme of things, the CISF will get to guard them. I am not very sure whether the CISF is equipped, in terms of numbers and specialisation, to take up activities that are specific to airport security. There is a case for the creation of a separate wing within the CISF that will take care of aircraft. The whole area of civil aviation security, especially protection of airports, has become so specialised that frequent replacement of men at the airports from the rest of the CISF for pure rotation of duties will be self-defeating.

The expansion of routes, especially those in the international sector, will bring in more foreign nationals into our airports. The immigration services will be put to severe test. They will be required to clear passengers fast while ensuring that people with dubious travel documents or dubious backgrounds do not come into the country. We need more people at immigration points but they must be trained and equipped to spot visitors with a questionable background and whose intentions are not exactly honourable. To make the whole system foolproof, we need large and super-efficient databases. The existing databases are not comprehensive. Unrestricted sharing of information about suspects with other countries should be the cornerstone of our immigration policy, if we want reciprocity from others.

Civil aviation is a fast-growing area, which calls for modern minds to comprehend its complexities. It requires constant learning from all over the globe. Close liaison with the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) will be of great benefit. We have a Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) in New Delhi that monitors events and trends and advises the Ministry. It has modest resources but has done some useful work in updating the knowledge of those who are responsible for aviation security. However adequate this is, unless there is a corresponding awareness among those who fly, there are bound to be slip-ups that may prove costly. In all my travels within India, I am yet to come across a passenger who has taken the initiative to point out slackness within airports that could endanger security. We will do well to encourage such passenger feedback.

Nevertheless, what I am happy about Indian airports is that the culture of political small fries gatecrashing into airports has come down considerably. Very few of the so-called VIPs hesitate to submit themselves to frisking before getting into a flight. This transformation has come about mostly after the substitution of the State police by the CISF for airport security. This gives us some comfort about aviation security. With the burgeoning air traffic there is, however, no room yet for relaxing our vigil.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor