No Panic After Brussels, but Profiling and Random Checks to Increase at Airport Gates

Security at Indian transport hubs will be increased without causing additional inconvenience to passengers, officials say

Passengers waiting for security check at Chennai airport. Credit: Flickr/Himmat Rathore

Passengers waiting for security check at Chennai airport. Credit: Flickr/Himmat Rathore

New Delhi: In the wake of this week’s terrorist strikes at the airport and a metro station in Brussels, the security of major transportation hubs and systems is being reviewed worldwide. However, agencies in India have not pressed the panic button yet. Instead of taking direct measures like increasing frisking and the checking of baggage outside airport terminals, they will be relying more heavily on profiling incoming passengers. This will aim to secure the installations while also minimising the inconvenience caused to travellers.

Increased sample checks and existing safeguards 

Speaking to The Wire, Surender Singh, director general of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) – the body responsible for security at most Indian airports as well as the Delhi metro – said his force has been mandated to increase the number of sample checks on passengers coming into the airport in view of the heightened threat perceived.

“What we do is check people on a sample or case-by-case basis, even at the time of entry. The percentage of those who are checked thoroughly, including with their baggage, goes up as and when the situation demands. So it is not that anyone can enter,” Singh said.

The officer noted that there are several levels of security at the airport to meet any exigency. “Even in the existing situation there are some safeguards available. First is of course a ticket, the second is profiling and third is that some passengers may be checked right at the entrance,” he said.

Moreover, he added, vehicles coming in are being monitored by armed personnel on the roads leading to the terminal buildings. “These personnel and Quick Response Teams (QRT) are part of anti-terrorist measures.  They are there to curb a bold attack or forced entry. In such a scenario they would act as the first line of defence. We also have cameras and drop gates at several points to meet these challenges.”

Possible gaps

But as things stand today, when passengers can walk with their baggage without x-ray scans right up to the airline counters, Singh said it is not possible to check all of the people who enter the airport, before the security hold area.

“It is not possible to check everyone as soon as they enter the airport, because as you can imagine that can lead to huge overcrowding right at the entrance,” Singh said. So as to not inconvenience passengers, the CISF personnel only pick passengers at random or on the basis of specific inputs or profiling for thorough checking, which includes scanning their luggage near the entrance. “But profiling is an additional instrument. You cannot depend on it alone or even predominantly. The checking of passengers at the entrance is done in keeping with the threat perception and on the basis of other inputs.”

Policy on whether security should be of the concourse type (in which all baggage is scanned outside the terminal building, as is the case in Srinagar or Tel Aviv in Israel) or the security hold type, as in New Delhi, is not decided by the CISF, according to Singh. “It is decided and mandated by the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS). We are only the implementing agency.”

Overall, an official preferring to stay anonymous told The Wire, the reliance of the Indian security agencies now is much more on neutralising the modules and preventing such attacks at the inception stage. That is also seen as a more effective strategy than increasing frisking, checking and barricading at vital installations, as that creates paranoia and causes a great deal of inconvenience to the general public.

The official added that at airports across India, regular audits are being conducted to plug the gaps. While all airports are protected by a perimeter wall with Y-shaped fencing, a perimeter road, perimeter lighting and watch towers with QRT vehicles, the audits are conducted to detect loopholes. Similarly, anti-hijacking, intelligence and surveillance, and protection and support duties at all airports are continuously monitored.

The BCAS, which lays down standards and measures with respect to the security of civil flights at international and domestic airports in India, not only monitors the implementation of security rules and regulations but also conducts surprise and dummy checks to test the professional efficiency and alertness of security staff. In addition, the agency conducts drills to test the efficacy of contingency plans and operational preparedness of the various agencies involved in airport security.

New plans

Meanwhile, plans are also afoot to reduce CISF personnel at airports by withdrawing them from non-core duties such as frisking, checking boarding passes and baggage tags, and guiding passengers. These tasks would be delegated to retired army and para-military personnel. This proposal was approved by the Prime Minister last year and the Union home ministry has begun a review of the process.

As for securing metro systems, the CISF has conducted an exhaustive audit and identified key areas for improvement. During a recent audit that covered many of the 149 metro stations being secured by the force, it found 160 gaps in the security apparatus. It was revealed that at many of the stations, there were places near the automatic fare collection gates where baggage that had not been scanned could be passed on by passengers. The CISF has now got down to tackling this possibility.