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Govindraj Ethiraj: Wanted - A minute-by-minute account


Govindraj Ethiraj  |  Mumbai 

Many are unhappy with the media, particularly the electronic media’s, coverage of the A fair bit has been said and some has been done. The News Broadcasters Association (NBA), a recently created self-regulatory body headed by Justice S C Verma, has already deliberated and hammered out a code of conduct which is now in force.

This was preceded by some fairly straight talking by the government and its many arms, each expressing displeasure at the electronic media’s role and the impact that it has had on “public consciousness” in the days after.

The role of the media in the terror attacks has been questioned, in all fairness, because everything the media did was in open display. Perhaps, as some allege, in too much open display. Though no one to my mind has sat down and done by a minute-by-minute breakdown of where precisely the media went wrong — a hysterical TV reporter cannot be equated to a hostage operation potentially and strategically compromised by live visuals of a helicopter lowering armed commandos onto a rooftop. Logically, it would seem that the latter was a no-no but a cold and careful analysis with information and tapes that are in public domain might help. Whatever that might throw up, the media would largely concur that there were failures because processes did not exist, compounded of course by competitive enthusiasm.

The role of the polity and bureaucracy — which ought to have processes that have been defined over decades — that worked behind the scenes is largely a mystery till today. And which is why I would demand a minute-by-minute account of what happened or did not happen. A senior, retired bureaucrat asked a small group of Aspen India Fellows the other day whether we knew who was supposed to be really in charge in Mumbai on that day. “The chief minister, the police commissioner?” we said.

No, he said vehemently, it was the job of the state’s home secretary to take control. Or the state’s chief secretary in conjunction with the home secretary since the latter reports to the former. And of course the police commissioner who has the powers of a district magistrate in a district.

Well, well, for the three days the unfortunate drama raged on, I never once realized that there was even a home secretary around whose job it was to initiate and manage the response, at least the beginning, leave alone co-ordinate the onground activities after.

According to the former bureaucrat, every known chain of command reaction failed on the night of November 26 or the next day. “It was not lack of co-ordination, there was no co-ordination,” he said. Made worse of course by quibbling between various bodies.

It occurs to me that any well nourished state government bureaucracy — and surely Maharashtra is one — has several senior officials who ought to have responded. Including the Director General for Information & Public Relations (DGIPR) who could have been on the location putting together a system for handling media queries. Or even putting together some form of official response to the next of kin of those dining at The Oberoi’s restaurants who spent some 48 hours circling Nariman Point trying to find out what could have happened. Unless its not their job, in which case I would like to know.

It does irk me even more because these very processes ought to have been in place after the Mumbai floods of July 26, 2005. When the same information lacunae were exposed. And whether the police commissioner should send a fax request to the Navy’s trained marine commandoes stationed (who were stationed 200 yards from the Taj Mahal hotel where hell was breaking loose) is a different story.

I was part of the public outcry after the floods. On basic civic response issues, apart from of course monumental failures in information dissemination. Incidentally, for those who may have forgotten, staffers at the BMC, Mumbai’s civic body, took a holiday that the state had declared for normal citizens, a day after the floods ravaged the city.

To return to the present, it is not my case that the police commissioner or chief secretary were sleeping while the terrorists were mowing down unsuspecting Mumbaikars with their AK 47s. They were all in touch and obviously doing all that they could. And losing brave lives. But as is now obvious, it was a process failure, not a people failure.

At the sombre re-opening of the Taj Mahal in Mumbai on Sunday, I couldn’t but notice the unprecedented security cordon that had been created around the building. I am pretty sure over time, the cordon will recede to the immediate periphery of the hotel, as it should. While we need to be far more aware of security at the private and public levels, we cannot allow it to rule our lives. This requires a process solution for intelligence gathering, sharing, anticipation and preparedness, not all-out physical clampdowns as we are wont to.

I was listening to Indian Hotels vice-chairman R K Krishna Kumar describe the utter destruction of parts of the hotel, including of the Harbour Bar, Mumbai’s first licensed bar. He also pointed out, almost matter-of-factly, that it took almost 48 hours for the terrorists to be quelled, after the NSG’s arrival that is. Tata group chairman Ratan Tata is already on record with his disappointment at the security forces’ response to the attacks.

It strikes me that our response to a crisis situation, at least of a non-military kind, often seems to that of a gradual scale up, rather than one that envisages a full-blown, worst case situation at the word go. The media, for all its foibles, usually responds the other way. The reason the whole drama was live from minute one was because news television pressed all available resources immediately. And stayed there. That’s a lesson someone should take away.

First Published: Tue, December 23 2008. 00:00 IST