India's post-26/11 police reforms painted stripes on a donkey — and passed it off as a tiger.

“Policing a country of a billion people,” lamented Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, in a speech delivered last summer, “is not an easy task.”

Last week, after the murderous bombings in Mumbai, Mr. Chidambaram reassured the city's residents that he was on top of the gargantuan job of modernising India's Mughal-era police infrastructure: ever since 26/11, the police force had become “better trained, better equipped and better motivated to deal with terror attacks.”

Figures available with Mr. Chidambaram's Ministry, however, show he was being economical with the truth: the pace of betterment has, at best, been glacial. Maharashtra's Anti-Terrorism Squad still has less than half the personnel the government admits it needs; its special weapons and tactics unit is undertrained and under-resourced; its coastal security programme has run aground.

Enormous deficits of resources and capacities like these characterise almost every police force in the country: the much-hyped, multimillion police reform programme initiated after 26/11, it is becoming clear, painted stripes on a doddering donkey and passed it off as a tiger.

Post-26/11 security reforms are painstakingly documented in the reports released by the MHA each year. The latest report, for 2010-2011, is 307 pages long — up from the 216 put together in 2009-2010, Mr. Chidambaram's first full year in charge of the gargantuan task of dragging India's security and intelligence infrastructure out of the Mughal era.

The healthy increase in the volume of text might give reason to believe a great deal is being done — but a close reading suggests that this conclusion would be wrong.

Last year, the MHA focussed on improving coastal security. The 2009-2010 report said it had “been decided to formulate Phase-II of the Coastal Security Scheme keeping in view the additional requirements of coastal police stations, interceptor boats and other infrastructure. In this regard, the coastal States/UTs have carried out vulnerability/gap analysis in consultation with Coast Guard.”

Here's what the MHA says it did in 2010-2011: “… decided to formulate Phase-II of the Coastal Security Scheme keeping in view the additional requirements of coastal police stations, interceptor boats and other infrastructure.” “In this regard,” it continues happily, “the coastal States/UTs have carried out vulnerability/gap analysis in consultation with Coast Guard” — a verbatim repeat of the previous year text.

This isn't the only evidence of the formidable skills of the MHA's mandarins in the fine art of faking security.

The MHA announced in 2010 that it had set up regional hubs of the “National Security Guards with a total strength of 1,086 personnel, i.e. 241 personnel for each hub and 122 personnel for administrative support, have been set up by the Government at Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai.”

In 2010-2011, exactly the same thing was advertised as a new achievement, in exactly the same language — though it has, thankfully, been moved down from page 96 to 146.

The actual record of implementation has been patchy. Both the 2010 and 2011 reports record, for example, instructions to fit transponders on India's merchant fleet — a kind of electronic device that would allow coastal authorities to track the whereabouts of the fleet in real time. The Director-General of Shipping at the Department of Shipping, both reports state, “issued two circulars to ensure that all types of vessels including fishing vessels” carried the cheap, easily-available devices.

Neither report, though, tells us how many have actually been fitted: the number, a senior government source wryly said, “is less than one”.

The Maharashtra case

Maharashtra's case is instructive, because it is here that the post-26/11 reforms were born — and ought to have been most acutely felt. The ATS has a sanctioned staff strength of 726 serving a population estimated at 112,372,972 — a figure that sounds impressive, if contrasted with the double-digit figures on duty on the night of 26/11.

It is less impressive, though, when placed against the over 1,500 staff strength the London metropolitan police's counter-terrorism division provides to a region with just 7.8 million residents. Less than two-thirds of the ATS personnel, moreover, are on active duty, though, because corruption-related concerns stalled the recruitment of mid-level officers for several years.

Elsewhere in the force, too, the picture is much the same. In 2009, the Mumbai Police purchased Colt M4 5.56-millimetre carbines, the Brügger & Thomet sub-compact MP9 for close-protection duties, the Smith & Wesson Military and Police 9-millimetre pistol as a personal side-arm and the M107 50-calibre Special Application Rifle. The weapons were purchased without conducting studies of the force's actual needs or evaluating competing equipment.

The force also chose not to invest in a specialised firing range where its personnel could conduct tactical training with these weapons — meaning their use in a crisis will do more harm than good.

Force One, the special weapons and tactics emergency response force set up after 26/11, is still short of bulletproof jackets, night-vision equipment, secure communications kits and blast-proof eyewear — and even a training base, since the land it was promised has become mired in disputes. It is even short of about a third of its complement of 70 officers, a deficit disastrous in combat.

Earlier this month, journalist Nitin Yashwantrao broke news that seven boats purchased to protect Thane's coastline were docked at a makeshift jetty, manned by untrained crews, and could run for a maximum of half-hour a day, because of restrictions on fuel purchases.

Vilasrao Deshmukh, former Chief Minister, candidly admitted in February that Maharashtra had “no trained manpower” to run the boats. In any case, they will be of little use unless the electronic equipment the MHA's reports speak of is installed in local fishing boats.

Key elements of India's broader police modernisation effort have fared even worse. Back in 2008, the Union government decided to set up a crime and criminal tracking network system, the CCTNS, which would allow police stations and organisations to share information from the bottom up.

In the wake of 26/11, the Cabinet decided to commit Rs. 2000 crore to the project, which is scheduled for completion in 2012. But Wipro is still designing software, and 10 States are yet to hire consultants for installing hardware. No one knows for certain just when the first networked computer will actually be installed in a police station.

The National Counter-Terrorism Centre Mr. Chidambaram promised to have up and running in 2010 to design and implement the security strategy, is stalled because of bureaucratic resistance.

So is NATGRID, a system which would allow investigators and intelligence services to monitor 21 sets of already existing government databases. Mr. Chidambaram said, in December 2009, that the project would be complete in two years or less — but the Cabinet accorded in-principle approval only last month.

It doesn't take a genius to see what's gone wrong. India's police reform programme has been reasonably successful in creating physical assets and hiring personnel. For example, 71 of the 73 promised coastal police stations have been built. Hundreds of thousands of police personnel have been hired: last year, the MHA claimed that India now had 162 personnel for every 100,000 population, up from 128:1,00,000 in 2008, edging slowly towards the international norm of 250:1,00,000.

But India has been less successful in making these acquisitions meaningful: in giving the police the kinds of investigation, intelligence and operation skills that make assets and tools meaningful.

Few of the thousands of police personnel drafted in New Delhi to guard its public infrastructure and installations, experts who visited them during the Commonwealth Games pointed out, even appeared to know the correct posture for holding automatic weapons.

Expertise is what India needs — and urgently. In the three years after 9/11, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation raised the number of its language specialists from 286 to 597, and trained counter-terrorism agents from 1,351 to 2,398 — this for a population of 30,70,06,550, or only three times that of Maharashtra. India's Intelligence Bureau and Analysis Wing put together have less expert resources — even in core areas like Urdu and Pashto language competence.

Meaningful reforms will require India having a political office which is responsible for internal security full time. The MHA's responsibilities run from the geostrategic to the municipal: along with discussing counter-insurgency, the 2010-2011 report tells us proudly that the “sacred tank of the historic temple of Karaikal Ammaiyar of the 6th century was revitalized with the full financial assistance of the Government of India at a cost of Rs. 3.12 crore”.

Real reform will also need openness to new ideas from younger officers and independent experts: the procession of committees of retired bureaucrats which have guided national security reform since 1998 has been exceptional in its fearless defence of the status quo.

There is a more fundamental question, too. Last week, television interviewer Karan Thapar asked if “we are the problem.” His questions make it imperative to examine whether India actually wants a professional police force — not officers who can be bribed to torture local criminals to recover stolen property, or let off drunk drivers.

Fighting terrorism needs professional, credible police and intelligence institutions. More than two-and-a-half years after 26/11, it remains unclear if India has either the will, or the desire, to build them.

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