The three bomb blasts that hit Mumbai during rush hour on July 13 highlighted both India's endemic vulnerability to terrorist violence and the serious deficiencies in its security infrastructure that must be addressed to keep the country safe.

Since 2003, Mumbai has suffered four major terrorist attacks, including one in November 2008, during which terrorists killed 164 and injured 308. Although Mumbai seemed to return to normal the day after the most recent bombings (they were relatively small, killing 24 and injuring 131 more), it is hard to live in the city, or have friends and family living there, without feeling that the country's national and state governments are simply unable to fulfill India's security needs. To be sure, defending a city in India from terrorism is a task more Herculean than defending London or New York City. Mumbai is an endless sprawl of millions; the state can hardly provide basic services, let alone protect its citizens. And most astonishingly, Mumbai, like other major Indian cities, does not even have a mayor with the authority and resources to try.

The biggest problem regarding security is the structural division between the national and local governments. The official report on the 2008 attacks criticized them both for failing to maintain ready and capable police forces. It also highlighted the lack of coordination among the police, intelligence agencies, and government once the attacks were under way. Nearly three years later, the Mumbai security forces appeared to have been no better prepared to prevent terrorist attacks.

Within hours of the blasts, Prithviraj Chavan, the chief minister of Maharashtra, the state in which Mumbai is located, claimed that the national government had never cleared a 2008 request from the Mumbai police (which he supervises as the chief executive authority of the state) for 5,000 closed-circuit cameras. The televisions may not have prevented the July 13 attacks but would have aided the investigation of them. He also claimed that he was in the state government offices during the explosions along with other senior officials and "felt so helpless when I could not get across to the police chief, as all lines were jammed. We need to upgrade the communication system."

In New Delhi, Palaniappan Chidambaram, India's minister of home affairs, quickly announced that the bombings did not result from an intelligence failure. But in 2008, India's Intelligence Bureau failed to follow up on leads about the mobile SIM card numbers used by the Mumbai attackers. The intelligence agencies may not have had such specific clues this time, but there is little doubt that India's security infrastructure remains ineffective. For a man who was appointed as home minister after the 2008 attacks because of his reputation for effective administration, Chidambaram has been tilting at windmills, wanting to change things but achieving little. He created a national counterterrorism response center and a national investigative agency, but these sit atop a horribly mismanaged policing system (it has many, many departments) that is virtually unaltered since British rule. The colonial policing model was meant to be hands-off until a crisis, at which point it would respond with a show of force. It remains hands-off today: A lone armored personnel carrier sits near the exit of Mumbai's international airport while masses of people and cars jockey to pick up arriving passengers. One APC would be powerless to detect or stop anyone carrying a bomb into the area.

Meanwhile, India has one of the lowest police-to-population ratios in the world: For every 100,000 people, the country has only 142 police (Australia has 290, Britain 200, and the United States 315). Fifteen percent of the jobs with the Mumbai police department, one of the biggest in the country, are unfilled. Nationwide, over 250,000 police positions are vacant. Police officers in some Indian states report not having paper to write up complaints or gasoline to run vehicles.

Severely underpaid, the police force is easily bribed and often colludes with the political class to maintain their respective power. Torture and forced confessions are common, and criminal courts rarely convict anyone. Terrorism courts have even lower rates of conviction because judges are generally skeptical of police evidence. Calls for reforms to help the police better prevent and manage crises remain unmet. For example, the latest commission tasked with studying police reform suggested implementing fixed tenure for state police chiefs, in order to insulate them and their ranks from political influence. No state government has agreed to follow the commission's recommendation.

This dysfunction is a result of the government structure. The Indian constitution makes law and order the responsibility of state governments, not national agencies, but does not give them enough funding to uphold them. In turn, even though the central government would like the police to reform, it is powerless to compel them to do so. India's democracy has survived by ruling with a light hand, and Indian society organizes itself in myriad and fractured ways, as the state sits by as a symbol.

The light touch was meant to hold a diverse country together and should have protected it from homegrown terrorism by allowing all ethnic and religious groups to flourish politically, socially, and economically. But the recent attacks challenge that notion. In the days after the bombing, the police department blamed a group called Indian Mujahideen, although no one has yet claimed responsibility. The Indian Mujahideen is an offshoot of the Students Islamic Movement of India; the Indian government banned both groups. The Indian Mujahideen is a tiny organization, with membership in the tens, not even hundreds, with limited training. It and similar groups have repeatedly claimed that they seek retribution for state-backed Hindu militancy in Mumbai in 1992 and in Gujarat in 2006. And with a Muslim population larger than the entire population of Pakistan, India must be careful about convincing Muslims to buy into the Indian dream of economic and political success. The Indian government's official position is that Islamic radicalization outside of Kashmir is not serious, but the Indian Mujaideen and others groups have repeatedly claimed that they seek retribution against state-backed Hindu militancy such as in Mumbai in 1992 and in Gujarat in 2006.

The obvious solution to the policing problem would seem to be deeper central government involvement. But if the national government became more intrusive by according to itself more policing powers at the cost of the states', it would risk losing legitimacy. Indian democracy remains strong because the government is not omnipresent.

Moreover, the central government's past attempts to involve itself in local affairs were fraught. Although it has quashed Marxist insurgencies and separatist movements in West Bengal, Punjab, and Kashmir, these campaigns left thousands missing and dead and led to horrendous human rights violations.

Rather than push through necessary police reforms, the Indian government has been busy fighting embarrassment stemming from errors in a list of terrorists Delhi wanted Pakistan to extradite as part of a joint counter-terrorism mechanism. Two of the men on the list turned out to be in India; one was lodged in a Mumbai prison. The gaffe was emblematic of the larger problems in the Indian security system: if the government cannot ensure the accuracy of its most wanted list, how can it be expected to protect the country. If the people of Mumbai want a safer city, the city must be able to govern itself. After the 2008 attacks, the Mumbai businessman Anand Mahindra suggested that the city needed a chief executive akin to a mayor of a U.S. city. If the Mumbai government had authority and resources, it could recruit more police officers, pay them wages that are not tied to the pay scale for the relatively poor state of Maharashtra, and develop a police force more representative of the city. Instead, Mumbai is waiting for a nod from New Delhi to buy security cameras.

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  • SUNIL DASGUPTA teaches political science at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
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