The security metaphysic

By Manisha Sethi

27 January 2015

An account of how the defence and security industry in India is increasingly domesticated by private players.
Illustration: Marcin Bondarowicz

Illustration: Marcin Bondarowicz

(This is an edited extract from Manisha Sethi’s book Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counterterrorism in India, published by Three Essays Press in October 2014.)

“If it is a good man, he will be stopped by the pneumatic tyre killers.” The Chief Operating officer (COO) explains earnestly, pointing to the mean looking metallic teeth that threatens to slash to ribbons anything that rolls over it.

“If it is a bad man however, he will continue on. Then these bollards will rise and stop him.” As he says this, a metallic cylinder rises from the floor with great sound and fury. And just in case the ‘bad man’ escapes this too, there is the crash-rated barrier. A large screen runs an animation video on spool, graphically demonstrating how the tyre killers, bollards and barriers can combat an onslaught of suicide bombers. Together, these three are the core of the “affordable and impregnable security from Israel” being showcased at the Homeland Security India fair in Greater Noida. A 100 percent owned subsidiary of a Holon-based company that offers ‘perimeter protection solutions’ – a popular phrase in this market – these makers of tyre killers and bollards set up shop in Ahmedabad in 2010.

“Why Ahmedabad?”

“It’s closer to the port and there are no workers unions in Ahmedabad.”  He smiles, the wry smile of those who feel entitled to factories free of any ‘labour trouble’.

“So, is business good?”

“Between 2010 and now [2012], we have already secured Grand Chola and Bombay Stock Exchange.”

A more recent visit to the company’s website informs that they have also bagged orders for bollards at the Hyatt hotel in Gurgaon, for an equity fund office in Madhya Pradesh and Tata motors in Jamshedpur. Business is good. No doubt on that count. The COO, himself a former major in the Indian Army, went to Israel to attend a course on suicide attacks and swiftly decided on an early retirement in favour of this lucrative security business. Indeed, this industry is swarming with ex-army men, short-service-commission officers having finished their terms, voluntary retirees, venerable generals and major generals. Some are senior managers and directors; some, spokespersons and consultants; some, editors of trade magazines; and others simply ‘security experts’ and regular fixtures on TV shows.

The cavernous interiors of the Noida Expo building are filled with companies – British, Israeli, Korean, Taiwanese and Indian multinationals such as Godrej to down-right local, cottage types operating out of West Delhi – peddling a plethora of wares. Bollards are a favourite of course, tyre killers and biometric technology are hot too; but the winner hands down is the CCTV camera. There is a great array to choose from: intelligent video armonia (because a large number of cameras must be able to work together “like musicians in an orchestra”) offering “full High Definition network solution” and “state of the art surveillance”. And oh, we have a heart: part of the proceeds from the sales of EverFocus Electronics Corp – offering “total surveillance solutions” – goes to the NGO Child Rights and You (CRY).

The hard-sell can produce an unintended irony though. The Japanese Fujitsu advertises PalmSecure, allegedly “the world’s most advanced biometric authentication system”, as “the fastest, simplest, most versatile and efficient system available to verify your identity: to make sure that you are, in fact, who you say you are. (emphasis added)” Who precisely is it targeting? Those very people, whose identity is to be authenticated through its technology? Or perhaps, it imagines a world where we are all willing subjects and pliant bodies, participating in our own surveillance and monitoring.

The Homeland Security India Fair is only one of the many exhibitions and expos that focus on the sale of surveillance devices, protective (as in ‘perimeter protection’) equipment and associated ancillaries. It is, in fact, a rather latecomer to the field.

The first mover was the Ministry of Defence, which set up the Defence Exhibition Organisation as early as 1981 to showcase the indigenous defence industry, operating entirely within the public sector with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and ordnance factories, by organising exhibitions in India and abroad. Beginning with Aero India in 1996, and the Land and Naval Systems exhibition, Defexpo in 1999, its biennale exhibitions rapidly established themselves as preeminent trade hubs. So much so that by 2010, the total area of exhibition had spread to 40,000 square metres from 17,000 square metres in the 2008 exhibition, and the rental had skyrocketed. Israel led the foreign exhibitors in renting as much as 1200 square metres of display space by shelling out INR 3.5 crores (USD 756,000). By 2012, it had grown even bigger, 567 exhibitors from 32 countries: SAAB, ABG Shipyard, Boeing, Polaris, HAL, Mahindra and Mahindra, TATA, Sirkosky, shipbuilders Navantia, Israel Aerospace Industry, Vectra, BAE Systems.

What draws these builders of ships, makers of helicopters, manufacturers of airplanes and assorted military vehicles to the India Expo in such large numbers? Inaugurating the Expo, the then-Minister of State for Defence, Pallam Raju, appreciated the “unprecedented growth” of the Defexpo, which he saw as a reflection of the “size of the defence market in India”. To be sure, these are not empty words of a minister trying to seduce investors. Budgetary allocations for defence have been steadily soaring in the past few years. In 2011-12, the union defence budget comprised 1.8 percent of the total GDP; in the following year, the budget shot up marginally to 1.9 percent of the GDP.

The 15-year Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP) approved by the Defence Acquisition Council, which is the source of defence planning, envisages the allocation of finances to defence to touch three percent of the total GDP – a feat yet not attained.

However, in absolute numbers, the outlays for defence far outstrip allocations for social welfare programmes. Its share in terms of expenditure was higher than the combined spending of health and family welfare, school education and literacy schemes, higher education and rural welfare. Between 2007 to 2014, defence expenditure has hovered around 15 percent of the total budgetary expenditure, rising to over 17 percent in 2009-10; in contrast, health and family welfare did not cross two percent in the same period, school education and literacy stuck at around three percent while higher education could not ever touch two percent of the total outlays.

~This is an edited extract from Manisha Sethi’s book Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counterterrorism in India, published by Three Essays Press in October 2014.

~Manisha Sethi teaches at the Centre for the Study of Comparative Religions and Civilizations, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She is the Associate Editor of Biblio: A Review of Books and the author of Escaping the World: Women Renouncers among Jains.


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