Minutes after a bomb ripped through the Delhi High Court on Wednesday, India's politicians began sounding like an old broken record: the terrorists were “dastardly”; the attack was “cowardly”; the perpetrators would receive a “resolute response.” Terrorists are unlikely to be cowed by this. The sad truth is that not one case of urban terrorism since 26/11 has been solved, and there's a mounting body of evidence that suggests the alleged perpetrators of attacks prior to that are being tried for crimes they did not commit. Post-26/11, the counter-terrorism apparatus has acquired an alphabet soup of acronyms: the NIA (National Investigations Agency), the NCTC (National Counter-Terrorism Centre), and NATGRID (the National Intelligence Grid). The assumption seemed to be that technology and islands of excellence could substitute for the unglamorous business of building grassroots police capabilities and competence. The idea has failed. India's new systems for intelligence sharing are useless, for there is little intelligence to be shared; its new guns and listening devices have been rendered impotent by poor training and utilisation; and its forensic facilities are overstretched and under-skilled. Union Home Minister Chidambaram has pushed the States to hire substantial numbers of police in the hope of meeting chronic manpower deficits. But the battle won't be won by numbers alone: Bihar has a pathetic 74.29 police for every 100,000 residents, about a quarter of what it needs; Nagaland has a staggering 1,677.3 personnel per 100,000 population, almost seven times its requirement — but both are good examples of incompetent policing.

Even though policing is a State subject, there are three things the central government can — and must — do to kick-start police reform. First, it must prepare a template for nationwide standards of police training and competence, compliance with which must be regularly assessed. Secondly, India desperately needs world-standard institutions for police tactics and investigation to produce the core of instructors who can develop the capacities of State police forces. States do run training programmes but their syllabi and training methods are, for the most part, unsuited to real-world policing. Few police forces have in-house forensic facilities, language specialists, or intelligence analysts. Thirdly, India's higher security management must be drawn through a process that tests aptitude for the job. Professional competence must guide promotions and remuneration. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke on Wednesday of a “long war” against terrorism. What the central government needs most is modesty: it must get back to the drawing board and start building the police forces the people of India deserve.

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