Friday, November 28, 2008

En Garde Trivandrum!

While it may be just a little bit hasty to call the happenings of the last 48 hours in Mumbai as the "9/11" of India, it certainly has grabbed the world's attention and spawned a tidal wave of shock and anger across the nation. The audaciousness of the attack - to fight it out with the security forces in the most famous district of Mumbai in full public view - and the duration of the whole episode is perhaps the most worrying part of it, with all due respect to the tragic casualty list.

We may think we are far removed from it all, after all the terrorists want to hit Mumbai, Delhi and the other metro cities, we are safe in Tier - II bliss. Aren't we?Well, consider this, terrorists choose their targets on their value, military, political or propaganda-wise. Wouldn't a city which is a political nerve-centre, the seat of India's space (and missile) programme, base of an Air Force Command, home to India's largest single IT park, one of India's tourist hot-spots and home to over a million people sound like a juicy target? If anybody is still wondering which city I am talking about, it is Trivandrum. Add to that equation the fact that the State where it is located has been keeping their eyes wide shut to the possibility of terrorism, to the extent where it as just thought of forming an Anti-Terrorist Squad! A city where an armed policeman is about as common as an ice cube in the Sahara, and armed at best with an antique Enfield .303 rifle twice his age! If this is not enough to paint a nice bullseye on Kerala and Trivandrum, throw in 900 Km of unpatrolled coastline, straight from the wish-list of any terrorist.

So what do we do about stopping trigger happy gunmen from running lose in the city? Three things mostly, it isn't rocket science but no harm in reminding everyone for the 3457th time.

Understand the threat - Sooner or later the bad guys will work out the fact that it will be easier to hit undefended, unprepared targets. It is a no-brainer. The Government needs to understand that a target as strategic as Trivandrum may appear on terror's crosshairs soon. And it needs to respond with significant action and soon. A policy has to be defined to put in place the resources to detect, preempt and tackle terrorist activity, not just the manpower and firepower but also the policies and the legal backing. The first one being that terrorist outfits need to be taken head-on, irrespective of their denomination or ideology.

Plan for the threat - Knowing what to look out for is just the first step. Planning in advance for what hopefully will never happen is critical. Making plans to tackle a crisis after it has occured usually guarantees chaos. Such knee-jerk responses are almost always sub-optimal because the same resources who have to execute the response spend a lot of their time thinking it up, under pressure. Often, such responses end up making the situation worse.

For example, if contingency plans are in place for various scenarios and adequate training has been carried for each of them, then the execution during the time of an actual crisis becomes a routine reaction and not a panic attack. The response to an attack on an IT park in another state cannot be the same as that to a specific intelligence alert of an impending terrorist attack in Kerala. The scope and intensity of the response has to be customised to the type of threat. Similarly, a sort of triage as to be performed on the list of potential targets to identify those most at risk from each type of security threat. This prioritisation has to be combined with the existing security arrangements at each target to decide on the appropriate response. While the International Airport and ISRO are high-risk targets, they are already well-secured by the Central Industrial Security Force and may not need as many additional forces in an emergency as, say, Technopark or the Secretariat.

Such plans may already be afoot, but they need to refined and drilled in. The usual response to a major terrorist attack somewhere is to post a couple of lathi-wielding constables and, occasionally, a lone metal detector. Hardly confidence inspiring.

Prepare for the assault - All the best laid plans of men and mice cannot be executed without the right resources. When dealing with terror, that means efficient intelligence gathering, command and control, manpower, firepower and logistics.

Trivandrum has the advantage of having the intelligence gathering and command & control apparatus of the State and Central Governments concentrated in and around the city. The new system of 18 surveillance cameras won't hurt either, but it may need to be expanded to cover areas like Technopark, the Airport, Kovalam and Vizhinjam. A mobile command & control facility could also be very useful.

The city also benefits from having a mechanised infantry brigade, a CRPF Group HQ, a very significant CISF presence, a Coast Guard Station and the Southern Air Command. This means that several thousand heavily armed troops are available in case of an emergency. Also, many of the strategic installations in Trivandrum are already heavily guarded.

But it is always the City Police which is the first responder to such threats. Today, the only force that can be mustered for the duty is the Kerala Police Commando unit. Yes, we have commandoes, trained by the National Security Guard (NSG), similarly clad in black and armed to the teeth with automatic weapons.

Kerala Police Commando

The problem is that there are only about 35 of these crack cops right now and they are usually deployed all over the place, guarding Lord Ayyappan and the CM being two of the most high visibility deployments. Behind them are eight armed police battalions equipped mostly with the good ol' World War II vintage .303 rifle which is better employed as a club against AK-47 wielding miscreants. Finally, the local police lack even these and have to make do with that most basic of weapons, the lathi. All fine against petty goons and the odd mob but pointing straight to a massacre against any kinsmen of the lot who shot up Mumbai. Evidently, the number of commandos need to be beefed up quickly and modern weapons issued to the armed police as well as the local constabulary. SLRs are already being slowly introduced into the armed police, the transition needs to be completed in the coming year and automatic side-arms issued to all police stations. We are better off than most of India in terms of the ratio of policemen to population, so we need to build on that. And while the Police is equipped with bomb detection gear and crack K-9s, X-ray machines, explosives detectors and robots to help defuse bombs need to be added at the earliest.

Logistics is the last requirement to ensure that the law enforcers are there at the right time, in the right place to protect us. The police vehicle fleet needs to be supplemented to enter two new dimensions - air and sea. A dedicated police helicopter, which can also work as a disaster rescue unit, is a dire need. With a longer coast than Maharashtra, Kerala needs to keep vigilant eyes out to sea. When smuggled goods and contraband were popular in the days of Sagar alias Jacky or Vincent Gomas, these days clandestine shipments are of a far more sinister nature - the kind which go bang in spectacular fashion. With thousands of ships from 30 ton trawlers to 350,000 ton supertankers sailing close to the coast of Trivandrum and a very large population of fisherfolk, infiltration by sea is not just possible, it is very probable. The Coast Guard will be keeping their eyes wide open based out of Vizhinjam and further out to sea, the Navy is already present. They have asked for a presence at the upcoming deep-water port at Vizhinjam and they are here to stay. But we need more pairs of eyes closer in, because the Coast Guard operates only from 12 nautical miles from the coast and the Navy much further out. Kerala already has a Marine Enforcement division, what they need are high-tech, fast patrol boats capable of running down any suspicious craft as well as the firepower to deal with any terror boats once they catch them.

And finally it is down to all of us to be vigilant, and to stop living in peaceful bliss. Once the wrong kind of people decide to check out the place where India's space triumphs start or where its biggest container terminal is located, we could all be wishing that the action stayed on screen. After all, there is always a war going on around us, it is only a question of how aware we are of it.

Jai Hind!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Nulltarif Rocks Trivandrum

Germany's top band, Nulltarif, played a gig yesterday at Nishagandhi and they were awesome. Great stage, lights and sound setup and a rocking crowd, who braved a rainy evening to come out and embrace German rock, all that made for an electrifying combination.

The first major Western rock band to perform in Kerala, Nulltarif's Asia tour is in connection with the opening of Goethe Zentrum, Trivandrum - Germany's cultural mission in the city which now joins the ranks of those from France, Russia and Japan. Trivandrum's cosmopolitan culture is truely going international!

An amazing crowd and a brilliant performance by the young, energetic rock band. In their words, "Trivandrum Rocks!!"

Govt. proposes PPP model for the deep-water shipyard at Poovar

The Kerala Government has decided to proceed with the proposed deepwater ship repair and construction facility at Poovar on a Public Private Partnership model. Ports Minister M. Vijayakumar announced that GoK is already scouting for prospective partners to develop the massive facility for which over 1000 acres of land have already been identified.

Since Poovar is located just 12 nautical miles from the Gulf-Malacca shipping route, the shipyard could easily tap the maintenance work of thousands of ships which pass along the route that accounts for almost one-third of traffic in the world.

Poovar has more than 13 m of depth near the coast which allows large ships like super tankers and container ships to call at the facility. The proximity of the upcoming container hub and deepwater port at Vizhinjam will allow the import of the thousands of tons of materials which will be needed for building and repairing ships.

India's abundant human resources will be another advantage as are the presence of a wide variety of engineering industries, especially in South India.

The PPP model has worked well for Vizhinjam and it will surely help Poovar develop into a world-class marine engineering hub.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Technopark Phase III looks stunning

The design for the 42 acre parcel of Technopark Phase III which is to be developed by Technopark itself, has been released. The stunning design was developed by India's top architect Hafeez Contractor working with Kerala's leading design firm, Iyer and Mahesh. Over 2.1 million sq.ft of business space and nearly 1 million sq.ft. of space just for parking.

The design is futuristic, breaking away from the traditional designs of Technopark buildings till date and creating a campus which would compare very favorably with any in the world. In fact, it just might give the Infosys, Trivandrum campus - also designed by Hafeez - a run for its money!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Talking about Hotspots

We have talked about the "happening" places in Trivandrum often here, and I thought an article on the topic would be useful for people, both as a "FYI" tidbit to be filed away and as a guide for that all-important choice in life, buying a house. The article appeared in today's Property Plus.

The hitch was that it got published in the name of Mr. Nandakumar, the City Editor, by mistake! Well, all's well as long as the aim of getting information out is achieved. Stay tuned for the next article, which will be an in-depth look at the rapidly evolving
IT Corridor.

Friday, November 07, 2008

IFFK comes round again

India's top rated and biggest film extravaganza is coming around again, the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) is scheduled from the 12th to the 19th of December.

Last year, I had a treat watching a load of top-class movies. And that includes watching "Naalu Pennungal" standing the whole time! I will be there once more, with my ol' buddy and fellow movie buff, BVN.

And I hope lots of you will join in as well, you can register online here.

See you there folks!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, TRIVANDRUM

November 1, State Formation Day, usually leaves me wondering whether we are better off as a State or as we were before Independence? I am not a secessionist (not yet, lol!) but one can't help wondering what we gained in the bargain.

On a much brighter note, I happened upon the website of one of India's newest brain factories, the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, a sort of clone of the world-famous IISc., Bangalore.

The point is that the IISER is in Trivandrum and it has already started functioning! I wonder why not even a single member of our ever-voluble media community has bothered to do an article on this prestigious institution, which is already being incubated on the sprawling campus of our resident brain bank, the College of Engineering Trivandrum? Doesn't the establishment of a world-class institute, which may soon take over the mantle held by the IITs, have any news value at all?

I remember the hulla-bloo when there was talk of upgrading another institution in the State, CUSAT, to national-standards. Although that seems to have gone nowhere till date, the proposal got front page coverage for a few months. Now that there is a bonafide IISER operating in Trivandrum, everyone seems to have misplaced their tom-toms.

Perhaps, it is the Govt.'s fault that they didn't trumpet the handover of the 200-acre land parcel at Vithura properly. Just as they didn't burst any crackers when the campus of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology was handed over to ISRO, after months of controversy.

But developments in Trivandrum happen quietly, which seems the best strategy in Kerala where publicity seems only to lead to controversy and downfall. Better action than mere words!

But, how long can our media keep ignoring Vizhinjam, Technocity, IISST, IISER and their ilk ? Not for long, I am sure!