Mumbai one year on

Normal, Weekender

A year after the terrorist attack in India’s financial capital, the city remains at risk, writes ERIKA KINETZ

THE walls that the rockets blew out have not been repaired, and the plaster is a dense scattershot of bullet holes. Dozens of holes, blasted by grenades, pockmark the linoleum floors.
One year after the terror attack that left 166 people dead, the Chabad House – a once-popular site with Jewish travellers where six foreigners were killed – remains scarred, still, and quiet.
In part, that silence is a symptom of how much remains unchanged since 10 militants with assault rifles fanned out across Mumbai last Nov 26, attacking hotels, a train station and other targets, paralysing India’s financial capital and shocking the country.
While Mumbai’s large hotels and important business centres have paid richly to improve their own security, many worry that the city as a whole remains vulnerable to another assault from Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based group blamed for the attack, or other assailants. While India is trying the lone surviving gunman, Ajmal Kasab, Lashkar-e-Taiba’s leaders remain free in Pakistan.
“Nothing has changed to alter the vulnerabilities of Mumbai,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi.
“The only institutions that can protect against terrorism are state institutions. They are failing to do so. As a result private institutions are being forced to spend large amounts of money on largely ineffective security.”
He blames the failure to beef up national security on weak-willed politicians, some of whom are corrupt and benefit from lax policing. Despite crucial steps the national government has taken to coordinate intelligence gathering, deterrence on the ground has not increased, he said. Since last year’s attacks, authorities have neutralised 13 Islamist terror cells in India, right in line with the average since 1998, he said.
At the time of the attack, critics complained the police were poorly trained and outgunned. Many, armed only with sticks, fled the attackers. Others, including the city’s anti-terror chief, were gunned down.
Today, the front of the Taj Mahal Hotel, where 32 people were killed, is sealed. All visitors must pass through a narrow aperture, which on a recent afternoon was watched by seven men. All bags are screened, and the entire property is ringed with barricades and guards.
The Oberoi Group has spent US$83,000 (K215,000) on new baggage scanners, metal detectors and patrolmen at its Trident hotel.
Meanwhile, a single guard talking on a mobile phone monitored the wide main entrance of the city’s Chhatrapati Shivaji train station, where 58 died and 104 were injured.
Inside, a throbbing river of commuters flowed around six unmanned and largely unused metal detectors. Almost no one was stopped at three checkpoints that lead to the tracks.
Deven Bharti, a top city police official, said that apparent disparity doesn’t reflect the many invisible measures police have taken – and the 1.3 billion rupees (K80 million) they’ve so far spent – to make the city as a whole safer.
Mumbai’s police force has grown by 1,000 this year, to 43,000, and every new recruit receives anti-terror training, he said.
A thousand men have been deployed to keep watch over high-profile targets in south Mumbai, including the Chabad House; 500 closed circuit television cameras have been installed across the city and a thousand more are on their way.
They’ve added 1,500 high-powered weapons and 25 amphibious vehicles and boats to their arsenal, Bharti said.
The police, which came under harsh criticism for their failure to act quickly, have also created 39 mobile combat vans to patrol the city around the clock and five strategically located commando hubs, with 70 to 100 men each, to speed their response to any future attacks.
“A whole process has been set in place,” Bharti said. “We are much better prepared. We have learned our lessons.”
But the Chabad House has yet to bounce back. While the conference rooms of the Taj Mahal and Oberoi’s Trident hotels buzz with commerce, at the Jewish centre there is only the swish of ceiling fans and the frantic flapping of a trapped pigeon’s wings.
Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, who heads the Chabad Mumbai Relief Fund, says the delay is due to security concerns as well as the deeply personal nature of the community’s loss.
“Everything we had here in Mumbai was destroyed,” he said. “It takes time to go and put the pieces back together.”
Berkowitz said he and his colleagues have been struggling with what to do with the property. While it would be symbolically powerful to reopen the same space, they have had trouble recruiting people to live in a site of such carnage. And the building, set in a warren of alleyways, presents a host of security worries.
No decision has been taken on the future of the building, he said.
“We cannot put people or our staff at risk,” he said. “The police are watching us very carefully, but we can’t let our guard down.”
The centre has continued working from a discreet, heavily guarded location they won’t disclose. They haven’t missed a single Friday-night Shabbat dinner since the attacks last year, but attendance is down 50 % to 70 %, Berkowitz said.
Many young Israelis come to India to decompress after completing mandatory military service. Israel issued travel warnings in September and October, advising against staying in synagogues or Chabad Houses in India unless they have armed guards.
“This is the highest level of threat at the moment,” said Orna Sagiv, Israel’s Consul General in Mumbai. “There’s no guarantee it will not happen again.”  – Associated Press