High court blast another blow for "clueless" government

NEW DELHI Thu Sep 8, 2011 6:58pm IST

A Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) member of the Delhi police force stands guard outside the High Court after Wednesday's bomb blast in New Delhi September 8, 2011. REUTERS/Parivartan Sharma

A Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) member of the Delhi police force stands guard outside the High Court after Wednesday's bomb blast in New Delhi September 8, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Parivartan Sharma

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A spate of audacious and deadly terrorist attacks on high profile targets in India is unlikely to be stopped anytime soon because the response by the government, slammed by one tabloid as "clueless," has been half hearted and underfunded.

Splashed on the front page of Mail Today's Thursday edition after a briefcase bomb killed 12 on a busy morning at Delhi High Court, the headline captured frustration at the government's failure to make progress on even basic security measures.

Witnesses to Wednesday's blast describe a man in his early thirties calmly strolling up to a busy reception area outside the court and leaving a case police say was packed with 2 kilos of nitrate-based explosives.

There were no CCTV cameras installed at the courthouse, despite promises to do so after a small blast there in May that may have been a test-run. Lawyers at the scene said metal detectors at the court were not working.

GK Pillai, until recently one of India's top security officials, defended the government's record but said the country was short of 1.8 million policemen, seriously hampering intelligence gathering.

"We are on the right track but need to do things a little bit faster," Pillai, a former home secretary, told Reuters, saying it will take at least nine years to train enough police.

The latest attack adds to a litany of woes for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, including corruption scandals that put his administration on the defensive and brought an agenda of economic reform to a virtual standstill.

"There is a governance deficit that affects every sphere and security is just part of that," said Harsh V. Pant, a defence expert at Kings College London.

On Wednesday, police and soldiers quickly swarmed around the courthouse and sealed the crime scene, an improvement on other recent attacks. But victims asked why there had been no police presence prior to the bomb at a busy gate of a clear target.

"There are still unresolved problems, that's why terrorists take advantage of them, to that extent there are weaknesses in our system," Singh said late on Wednesday, in what some commentators described as an official shoulder-shrug.

Pillai said illegal armed groups were increasingly operating in small cells that limit electronic communication, making them hard to crack without human surveillance.

"We have not yet found the solution to small groups."

The Economic Times business daily called on Singh to deliver on promises to improve intelligence gathering and sharing, even more crucial in a country with hostile neighbours and a history of home-grown and foreign militant groups carrying out attacks.

"(U.S.) intelligence gathering capability improved dramatically after 9/11. The result: no terrorist attacks. It's an example India should emulate," the newspaper said on Thursday.

But few believe such measures will be taken. Instead the attacks will continue, as prevention remains minimal and perpetrators evade capture.

The truth is that terrorism, like corruption, is not an issue that wins or loses elections in the world's largest democracy, where caste and religion are still used to mobilise voters.

As such, governments, including this one in its second term and predecessors led by other parties, make loud promises to tighten security after an attack but soon divert their attention elsewhere.

TINY BUDGET

A report published in August by India's Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, a Delhi-based think-tank, describes cash-strapped police forces in Mumbai unable to purchase bulletproof vests despite promises to equip them after Pakistani-based militants armed with automatic rifles and explosives wrought mayhem to the city for more than 24 hours in November 2008 killing 166 people.

Mumbai was also promised a network of CCTV cameras after those attacks but they were never delivered. Then, in July this year, three bombs rocked the city's busy diamond district, killing 24.

High speed patrol boats bought to protect the coast of the ocean-side city are sitting idle because of budget constraints on buying fuel. Former Secretary Pillai said upgrades to coastal security were already being felt but will still take 2-3 years as new radars are installed.

Home Minister P. Chidambaram is under fire for failing to capture any suspects for the most recent attacks. The Mail Today listed 6 other unsolved attacks since 2010, saying the latest Delhi bomb made "a mockery of" the minister's vaunted overhaul of intelligence.

Ajai Sahni, who runs the South Asian Terrorism Portal, a Delhi based think-tank, called on the government to invest in training and equipping grassroots policing and intelligence gathering.

Following the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the government set up the National Investigation Agency supposedly on the model of U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, but it is drastically underfunded and critics say its creation was misguided.

"This year the budget is something like 560 million rupees, which works out to roughly $12 million, the FBI's budget is in the region of just under $8 billion, for a population that is one fourth India's population," Sahni said.

(Editing by Paul de Bendern and Ed Lane)

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