Brussels attack exposes chinks in India's airport security

The terrorist attack in Brussels on Tuesday has turned the spotlight on the security apparatus at airports in India.

The attack in Brussels comes barely three months after a parliamentary standing committee flagged concerns about the gaps in security at airports in India, which included inadequate CCTV coverage in terminals, presence of slums, and non-deployment of Central Industrial Security Force personnel in certain sensitive airports.

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Also of concern is the government's inability to fill the post of the commissioner of the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS). BCAS is the aviation security regulator, which has been without a full-time head since 2012.

While security at all airports in the country has been heightened following Brussels, with restrictions on visitor entry and intensified baggage checks, there is no plan for security checks of passengers and their bags outside terminal buildings. At present, passengers are frisked before accessing the terminal only in Srinagar.

On Wednesday, IndiGo received threats about bombs on its aircraft. Its call centre in Chennai received a bomb threat, leading to increased checks of its aircraft. The airline's Jammu-Delhi flight was taken to an isolation bay upon landing at Delhi for checks following security threat. Nine other IndiGo aircraft were also checked at Delhi airport following the threat call.

The idea of frisking passengers outside terminals was first examined after the attack on Parliament but was not been implemented, following a review. It was felt this practice could lead to long queues outside terminals during rush hours and would require passengers to report much earlier for flights.

"Surveillance at airports can be enhanced with more personnel in uniform and plainclothes. Sniffer dogs can be deployed and staff trained in Intelligence and passenger profiling. These measures can help in enhancing security to a large extent," said aviation security expert P Mohanan.

Experts say that the aviation security globally has largely been shaped by policies to prevent aircraft hijack and aircraft bombings and not so much to prevent suicide bombings. In India, the other danger to airports is from outside the perimeter - encroachments.

Other measures to strengthen airport security have been hanging fire or have taken too much time for implementation. Plans to issue biometric cards to airport staff have been a non-starter. Airports in metro cities and 18 Airports Authority of India (AAI) airports have their own bomb detection and disposal equipment. But other AAI-run airports rely on police or defence authorities for bomb detection.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee, in its report submitted in December, had highlighted lack of coordination between the Delhi Police and airport authorities and issue of encroachments in the periphery of Mumbai airport, requirement of additional CISF manpower at Mumbai, and the security risk posed by 5,000 casual employees, who work in the cargo complex in Mumbai.

During the committee's visit to the Delhi airport, the Delhi Police raised concerns about 12 issues, including inadequate CCTV coverage, lack of space for a police post in Aerocity, inadequate fencing around Terminal 3 and the risk posed by three adjoining villages. Delhi International Airport Limited had informed the committee that it constantly reviewed security and contingency plans.

The committee also observed that eight "hyper sensitive" airports and 19 "sensitive" airports did not have CISF cover. It suggested that the CISF should be deployed at all the 70-odd airports that had scheduled commercial flights.

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