Mumbai under Siege: the risk of becoming a global city

Ramola Naik-Singru

The last 60 hours all those concerned with Mumbai’s future have been glued to internet screens refreshing updates on twitter in between capturing images of the latest on the Mumbai terror attack. The Indian forces have battled untiringly to release the hostages and flush out the terrorists. There have been heavy casualties with 17 security personnel losing their lives in battle, about 178 civilians killed and 300 people wounded. It has been a deep gash on Indian urban life and as Mumbai starts its recovery the analysis of the crisis begins. The terror unleashed on the city brought to fore many facets of urban issues. From the lack of disaster management plan on the part of the government and delayed response to the positive emergence of social media, citizens initiatives and civic response through usage of new media.

The obvious unpreparedness of the State Government to respond in a quick and efficient manner to the terrorist attack and the complete chaos in managing the process showed the deep fragmentation in the Indian governance system. A lack of co-ordination, risk assessment and decision-making was evident by the delay in bringing in the elite National Security Guards (NSG) and Indian Naval Commandos on part of the State Government. There was no evidence of any disaster management plan in place which could have resulted in faster action and response to the terror attacks.

It was appalling to hear the State Government of Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh on television immediately after the blasts, stating that it was the hotel’s responsibility to deal with security issues. It is to be wondered what his administration and the Coast Guards not to mention the Indian Navy, which has a large base close to the location of the targeted hotel, were doing when the terrorists landed on the shores of Mumbai in rubber dinghies. Whose security lapse was that?

How did a city aiming to be the global face of India get into this situation?

To the business interests and politicians aiming to make Mumbai a ‘global’ city this is validation that it is already on the footsteps of London albeit as the target for the terror attacks. One thing it has achieved is to become the global face of risk and terror in urban India. Mumbai has in the last 60 hours managed to attain the dubious distinction of being the new site for the war on terror and the burning image of the Taj Mahal hotel is embedded in the world’s imagination of Mumbai.

However the intrinsic resilience of the city and its citizens is to be marvelled at once again. Indian markets opened lower as trading resumed on Friday afternoon at the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) where the Sensex index recovered to 9,092.72 points later in the day confirming the resilience of the economy and the faith of the investors. If the purpose of the terrorists was to paralyse the Indian economy then they did not succeed. While in the short term tourism and foreign direct investment may suffer a setback there is no doubt in the minds of investors outside the country that India remains a star amongst the emerging markets in the world noted a spokesperson on BBC World news yesterday. In any case markets and foreign direct investments have been affected by the wider financial crisis and it would be difficult to dissociate it from the implications on the market due to the terror strikes. These strikes have come at a time when western institutional investors and hedge funds have pulled out of the market with the Sensex index of India’s leading 30 shares dropping 56.0% since the start of the year leaving investment sentiment rather vulnerable (Vidya Ram).

If the purpose of the terrorists was to vilify India’s image as a growing economy and to instil fear in the citizens of Mumbai, they did not succeed. In fact it brought together the citizens in strange ways. Citizens set up blogs, help-lines and twitted to help people find their relatives, to extend support in all matters from donating blood to putting up lists of injured victims. It was a revolution in forms of social media. The emergence of citizen journalists reporting and updating information created a virtual space for people concerned with this event. For those based outside India this forum was a lifeline of information and is to be commended (see CJ on IBNlive).

Marker of global discontent

This was neither an internal attack Hindu-Muslim conflict nor the usual suspect Pakistan-India conspiracy. With the startling revelation that the gunmen were looking for Americans and Britons, it is obvious that this is part of a global retaliation rather than a domestic insurgency and the targets were clearly urban elite both Indian and foreign. This brings to fore a new dimension to urban violence hitherto arising out of socio-economic inequality. The spatial targeting in an emerging ‘global’ city of a high profile elite hotel hosting international guests and domestic urban elites categorised as ‘global’ citizens goes beyond the general discontent of economic inequality. It can in a strange sense be called ‘global inequality’ encompassing economic and spatial disparity at the same time social and religious antagonism.

Admitted that this was a brazen attack that has not been previously encountered at this scale on a dense urban area in India, but that precisely reveals the lax security and failure of intelligence networks that the terrorists could attempt such a frontal attack (note on the Fidayeen technique by Sumantra Bose) on the landmark hotels. This was not an unplanned operation as it appeared in the early stages of the siege. It was a methodical and systematic operation where the terrorists knew the layout of the structures very well. They had placed their people well within the environs of the target sites advantageously using their intelligence networks. This also suggests that the destructive elements were not only ‘external’ but possibly internal elements that were working in tandem. If terrorists can overcome regional boundaries why cannot governments and people do the same?

While blaming the neighbours provides easy vindication for Indian politicians in any terrorist situation, it would be unwise to take such measures at a stage when there is possibility of dialogue and peaceful resolution of long standing conflicts. It is unfortunate that external elements and non-state actors can create situations that are engineered to increase the distrust between India and Pakistan. This situation calls for maturity and resolute convictions that peace can be attained in the region through concerted action rather than resorting to age-old blame games.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said he would send a representative of his intelligence agency (ISI) to help with the investigation. Pakistan’s offer should be seen as a well meaning gesture to address terrorism as the global threat it is rather than an issue of conflict between these two countries. We have come a long way in creating a world image of a progressive nation and it is time to put systemic distrust on the shelf and move towards evaluating the world through a new lens. Pakistan is grappling with its own internal problems and certainly would not want a conflict at this stage as was obvious from the remarks of PM Gilani. India should seize this moment to create a platform for regional cooperation towards resolving conflict and increasing security in the region. If we can get beyond the political distrust it might be a defining moment in not just the regional history but also in the way the world tackles global security issues.

Dysfunctional democracy?

It was in bad taste that Indian politicians used the background of targeted sites to create a political platform for canvassing their ideas when Mumbai was under siege. What the citizens would have preferred their elected leaders to be seen helping arrange support systems and help lines rather than network mileage from TV appearances. It is time that politicians get savvy in their approach. In fact it is time for us to vote savvy, intelligent and committed politicians that inspire confidence in the system.

I am constrained to say that India may be the largest democracy in the world but it is not a working democracy. In this system your vote does not count because you are voting at the lowest rung of the parliamentary system. It does not affect the people at the top. They are far removed from the actual citizens and hence feel complacent within the well layered protection the system provides and their assured vote-banks in ‘safe’ constituencies. Question is whether you are electing the person or the party. If it is the party you can only hope that they might put a sensible person at the helm as was the case when Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister. With coalition politics here to stay it is becoming a lucky draw system. It may be time to change to a presidential system as advocated by Shashi Tharoor.

When are we going to start a self evaluation of our system – parliamentary, governance, bureaucratic and institutional; when it is showing obvious signs of dysfunction? This might be the right time to revamp our systems. It is heartening to note that the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has started evaluating the intelligence lapse, lack of inter-agency coordination and security issues. However, it is not just the government but the citizens who must take cognisance of where we are headed – where our lifestyles, cities and country is headed. It is about time that we took charge of the future of our cities and made proactive changes rather than ‘blame it on the politicians’.

The writer is a PhD candidate in Urban and Regional Planning at the London School of Economics and an Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Development Management, Asian Institute of Management, Manila.

Picture above: Taj burning (c) Arun Shanbag 2008

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