Securing the city, privately

Securing the city, privately

Two lakh untrained, unarmed and poorly paid private securitymen are tasked with guarding the City's apartments, malls, ATMs and offices

Securing the city, privately

We want lathi-wielding policemen everywhere, every time. We want them to be seen directing every traffic-clogged street, manning every dark alley, guarding us against dangers lurking around every corner. But this, clearly, is a utopian ideal, far removed from the reality called the overstretched Bangalore police.

Do we see an alternative then in the now ubiquitous private security guard? Does the untrained, unskilled, unarmed guard manning the city’s offices, apartments, malls and ATMs inspire confidence? The answer may not be a resounding “No.” But the police and domestic security experts are convinced that unless there is a methodical, structured overhaul of the whole business of private security, it cannot be a potent second layer of trust for the citizenry.

An estimated two lakh private security personnel are part of this parallel structure in Bangalore. Since the demand is rising fast and there is a clear disinterest in the profession among locals, the vast majority of the guards are outsiders, mostly from the northeastern states. Locals, so goes one argument, feel it is a lowly job. But there is a far more convincing contention: That people here want their families to stay with them, a costly proposition. The paltry salaries earned by the guards can hardly cover their daily expenses here.

The consequent influx of outsiders for the job has triggered a background verification headache for both the police and the agencies hiring them. The guards’ native states are so distant that cross-checking their antecedent is a tough, often unrewarding exercise in futility. Explains a senior police official, “By the time the long-winded verification process is completed and a report filed, it would often be too late. This is the case when the guards are themselves involved in crimes.”

No arms training

But there is another bigger, far more serious area of concern: The virtual lack of even basic arms training among the personnel. While some agencies claim there is a training infrastructure in place, the reality states otherwise. Confronted even with the weakest of attacks, most men guarding properties of high value are sure to be sitting ducks without even a lathi! 

Guarding a glitzy, high-profile wristwatch showroom in the Central Business District, 22-year-old Tiwari knew the risks involved. That he was the only one manning the entire place made it only worse. But he had three mouths to feed back in Uttar Pradesh, and had no choice. “Some of my colleagues in the agency are given lathis. But to get this so-called safety weapon, they have to agree for a cut in salary. So, many like me choose to be unarmed,” he says.

Being largely unorganised, the private security business has no link with any labour law of consequence. Twelve-hour shifts are the norm. There are no weekly offs. More importantly, salaries are extremely low. Peeran Singh Bahadur, a Nepali guard outside a bookshop on Church Street knows he can have no breathing space with a Rs. 7,000 monthly pay. “I have to send Rs. 5,000 to my wife and three children back in Nepal. I don’t get anything extra, even during festivals. I can’t complain because we are poor, without any choice,” laments Bahadur.

Twelve-hour shift is the standard industry norm, contends James A V, managing partner of the security firm, Total Care Services. “Everywhere, this is the practice. Ultimately, it comes down to the salary. They don’t mind switching jobs even for a few hundred rupees. We do train them in handling safety equipment and grooming, but not self-defence. Police verification is not being done because the cost involved is very high. On our part, we take their school original certificates and check their local address.” 

Unregulated industry

So as things stand, the low paid, mostly untrained personnel stand no chance as a force-multiplier for the city police. “Private security is not a regulated industry. With only very basic training, the guards put their lives at risk. There should be systematisation and benchmarking of procedures. Uniform rules have to apply. With big improvements in recruitment process, training and service conditions, things could change,” notes Pronab Mohanty, Additional Commissioner of Police (Crime).

But he cautions against the dilution of the security function. To be a potent force, the guards cannot be asked to multi-task. In their long hours of work, the personnel are often asked to be usherers in hotels and run errands for multiple functions in apartments. “Some securitymen are even asked to mop the floor in malls. This seriously affects their alertness. If the malls don’t take adequate precautions and boost their security infrastructure, what happened in Nairobi could happen here too,” warns a top police official.

Matters wouldn’t have got so bad had the State government strictly enforced the rules and regulations stipulated by the Private Security Agencies (Regulation) Act, 2005. 

This legislation clearly lays down a set of conditions before any security agency is issued a licence. From checking the antecedents of the private security guard and supervisor to training to physical fitness standards required, the rules are comprehensive. “The licensing procedure has not been followed properly all these years. There has to be a security audit of these agencies by the police,” points out a top-ranking police official himself.

No database

But the police too have failed to keep an adequate check on the agencies. If background verification, as mandated by the Act, is an extremely tough task, there could be no excuse for not maintaining any database about the security firms. Without a regulatory mechanism, several unauthorised agencies have mushroomed in the city with questionable selection processes.  

“Lot of retired army personnel start such agencies. It has now become a racket, although there are some well-trained, commando-type agencies engaged by top IT honchos,” says Kamal Pant, Additional Commissioner of Police (Law & Order). Long retired from service, the ex-militarymen might not be fit enough, not connected enough with the techniques learnt years before. Public confidence in their abilities might take time to cultivate, he feels.

Training of these men, then, is critical. But the police cannot be expected to do this. Here’s why, as explained by a senior city police official, “The State police themselves have no resources to train more than 1,000 personnel a year at the main centres. The temporary training centres at the District Armed Reserve (DAR) are not adequate.”

Pant suggests that the State Government could think of subsidised training courses for the personnel, in partnership with big corporates. Guards who complete the course could be awarded certificates. This, combined with a system of grading the guards and security agencies based on their capacities, could be tried. This, he feels, will trigger a competition based on skills and professionalism. He also recommends a strictly enforced ban on unregistered agencies and boosting the capabilities of the registered ones.

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