The tiffinwalla approach to fighting terror

I’ve been thinking about what sort of systems should be put into place to try to prevent further attacks as in Mumbai. I don’t mean this to be callous. I too have family in Bombay, and while they’re OK, my heart still aches for those whose family is not. But the trains are running once more and need to be protected. [This is also some very abstract thinking, so I might be and Mumbaikar reveals, in the comments, that I am entirely talking out of my kundi.]

One solution, as Manish argues, would be to close the entire system and control access:

What it would take to solve the bombs-on-trains problem: money, lots of money. Indian Railways needs to run more frequent trains so they’re not jammed all the time. The stations need to be fully enclosed so entrance can be precisely controlled. And, like on Eurostar high-speed trains, every passenger needs to be scanned for explosives. [Link]

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p>Something like this is done in the New Delhi Metro system. Although there was no mechanical sniffer, at many stops passengers were patted down or wanded by bored jawans. However, it strikes me that this is the wrong path, similar to trying to create a computerized tiffin system in Bombay. Sure it might work, but you’d need continuous electricity and literate tiffin carriers. Instead, India currently has something better. Using a system of painted symbols on each tiffin carrier:

Five thousand tiffinwallas deliver 175,000 hot lunches from home to work every day, and empty tiffins back home, with only one error every 16 million deliveries. [Link]

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p>India works best when its ample semi-skilled labor applies simple rules repeatedly and rigidly. I’m trying to think about how to best reduce security risk by applying India’s comparative advantage, rather than imposing an alien solution.

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p>Applying a similar form of reasoning, here’s one suggestion, a policy that dictates:

Any unattended bag on the train should promptly be thrown out by whoever sees it

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p align=left>[UPDATE: MUMBAIKAR HAS ARGUED THAT THIS WONT WORK IN REAL LIFE. FAIR ENOUGH, I'M TRYING TO MAKE AN ARGUMENT FOR A PARTICULAR TYPE OF APPROACH RATHER THAN ONE SOLUTION IN PARTICULAR]

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p align=left>This approach turns the number of passengers from a weakness into a strength. The more passengers, the more eyes there are to watch. It’s clearly in their own self-interest to do so, so we can expect vigilance. And Indians are very good at being nosy.

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p align=left>India isn’t the sort of place where you leave a bag unattended in any case, so any bag that is unclaimed, even briefly, probably doesn’t belong there. Lastly, Bombay trains have open windows and doors, so you can quickly jettison any bag that gets left behind.

This is only a partial fix. Bags at foot level might be hard to notice when a train is jam-packed [Disclaimer - I've never been in one of these trains]. And it wont stop a suicide bomber with explosives strapped to his or her clothes. Still, it would be faster, cheaper, easier to implement and more reliable than a high tech solution.

Whether this idea works or not, the broader point is that any solution should employ social capital more heavily than technology. It should go with rather than against the grain, using the characteristics of the local transportation system as a strength rather than fighting it. You can’t impose an alien system on a maximum city like Mumbai, it’ll be overwhelmed. Instead you need a very Indian solution.

UPDATE 1:

A new policy has been announced:

Close Circuit Televisions (CCTVs) have been installed at seven railway stations of Mumbai and the Western Railways plans to hire a security agency to improve surveillance in the wake of Tuesday’s serial blasts in suburban trains.

“We intend to hire an expert security agency and create an international-standard security set up that will be the best in the country. A time-bound programme will be undertaken in consultation with the agency”, Rao said.

Till then, to begin with, CCTVs have been installed at the seven railway stations, he said adding the strength of sniffer dog squad has been tripled and will be put on standby for any emergency.

Extra paramilitary forces were deployed at railway stations in view of the present situation, he said, adding baggage checking and frisking have been intensified. [Link]

I’m sure this will all help, but not much. From what I’ve heard the system is too open for these measures to be effective – if people board between stations, then they can circumvent the CCTVs, sniffer dogs and paramilitary forces. You’d either need to close the entire system of choose a different approach.

UPDATE 2:

Mumbaikar’s comment about the flaws in my proposal:

Ennis, usually people in Bombay whenever possible are extremely cautious about unattended objects lying around. Whether in parks, under benches in railway stations or inside compartments. At rush hour the compartments are so packed that small tasks like wiping the sweat from your forehead or breathing itself is a challenge. The trains get completely packed after the first couple of stations itself (i.e withing 10 mins the trains are full, in a 90 minute journey). In the subsequent stations as people cram and push themselves in, people usually dont get much beyond the doorway. Bags are then passed overhead in a relay system to the people standing under the racks and they then adjust the bags and keep the new bag there, untill there is no place. When people want to get down, again, the bags are picked up and passed to the person. In such cases it is very difficult to track which bags are unattended, who left without a bag etc.

36 thoughts on “The tiffinwalla approach to fighting terror

  1. Ennis, Great idea! I would not be surprised if “mob-justice” comes up with the same rule. This solution would work well for commuter trains, since passengers are most likely to be (1) awake, (2) close to their luggage. Though I wonder whether people become desensitized over time…

  2. Whether this idea works or not, the broader point is that any solution should employ social capital more heavily than technology.

    It all depends on what you’re good at. India has the human/social capital available to do this. Unless Mumbai completely revamps its infrastructure, a controlled access solution heavy on technology would be expensive and slow to catch on.

    Controlled access works for airports, but with the volume of people that travel on trains, this would be a serious logistical nightmare. Purely relying on human/social capital though still leaves room for human error. The tiffinwalla network is prett damn unique and super impressive. They defy the statistical odd and from a quality assurance perspective, it leaves you scratching your head.

    Using the large population to your benefit, some technology, and a whole lot of future planning on how you lay out public infrsastructure would be progressive steps one would want to take, IMHO. Relieving pressure on railways via better road networks would also help.

  3. If you throw the packages out, they are going to land on an extremely crowded Slum, a gas pipe or on the head of a man peeing on the tracks.. and ..then explode…

  4. Ennis, usually people in Bombay whenever possible are extremely cautious about unattended objects lying around. Whether in parks, under benches in railway stations or inside compartments. At rush hour the compartments are so packed that small tasks like wiping the sweat from your forehead or breathing itself is a challenge. The trains get completely packed after the first couple of stations itself (i.e withing 10 mins the trains are full, in a 90 minute journey). In the subsequent stations as people cram and push themselves in, people usually dont get much beyond the doorway. Bags are then passed overhead in a relay system to the people standing under the racks and they then adjust the bags and keep the new bag there, untill there is no place. When people want to get down, again, the bags are picked up and passed to the person. In such cases it is very difficult to track which bags are unattended, who left without a bag etc.

    I recall an incident during one of the non rush hours when somebody spotted a “suspicious” package. Everyone was suddenly alert and this one dude took the package and started shouting to whom does it belong. When nobody responded, he proceeded to throw it out of the train, when suddenly one dude woke up from his day dream and claimed the bag. This guy was so furious that he gave him a tight slap.

  5. This is a fabulous idea, ennis.

    Even if this has some diffulties in the commuter system (like the ones that Mumbaikar pointed out), it can atleast be used in the inter-city trains. Since these trains are not so crowded, the day-dreamer problem can be solved by people simply announcing when they come in “This is my bag, I’m placing it here.”

    Lots of people already do that with their seat numbers i.e., they walk in announcing “seat 26 and 28 belong to us, that’s upper and lower berths” so that other people get out of those seats. (there’s always someone on your seat). So, doing so with bags should be no problem.

  6. Great ideas ennis.

    But I will state this – terrorists will probably just move on to another target. In a country like India where security in urban areas is lax, and urban population density is extremely high, there are tons of targets to be found.

    Karachi suffers from the same issue, and now the authorities have taken the London approach and started putting up CCTVs across the city. It may be time to consider that approach in India as well – it won’t really be that controversial since privacy isn’t usually a huge concern, especially in these times.

  7. Do u guys really think this is a great idea? Ennis, Sorry if I sound harsh, but I think its a stupid idea.

    Those who plant these bomb bags will definitely be keeping them at places where people cant see quickly, most probabaly under seats. Trains are so crowded during rush hours, that its not easy to notice them there. Even if you notice, will you really pick it up and start asking whose it is? Imagine you are sitting in a really crowded train and you notice a behind the legs of the person sitting opposite to you. You will just assume that it is his or some fellow passenger’s.

    CCTVs on stations wont help. These terrorists are fanatics and they dont care getting killed. I am sure you all have heard about fidayeen attacks. Again the volume of crowd will hamper CCTV.

    I’ll tell you what will work. Information network. Thats the best way you can prevent terrorist attacks. Need informers planted in enemy camps. We keep hearing about cops nabbing terrorists with RDX and stuff, thats how it should work. The current information system is quite effective but still needs improvement.

  8. Ok, somebody needs to educate you guys about the actual experience of traveling in a gents (men’s) compartment during rush hour.

    It is absolutely crowded, so there is NO space to carry any kind of bags in your hand. The only option is to keep it on the shelf above the seats. Once there, the bags are basically unattended until you reclaim it before you get off.

    That is probably the simple mechanism that the terrorists used. Get on the train sometime before the blasts, put the bag on the shelf (hence the head injuries) and get off the train after that.

    So no, this is NOT going to work, ennis.

  9. That is probably the simple mechanism that the terrorists used. Get on the train sometime before the blasts, put the bag on the shelf (hence the head injuries) and get off the train after that.

    From what I’ve read, unlike what Rahul mentioned, that is exactly where the explosives were placed, which does explain all the head and chest injuries.

  10. What if someone has an explosive and claims it is his/her bag? In other words, what if there’s a suicide bomber?

    My quibble with your broader point isn’t that I disagree entirely, but that the point is much more nuanced than you made out to be; even in the decadent West, technology, you see, is never an enabler, and always a force-multiplier. Meaning, it won’t make you do new things, but merely help you do old things faster, stronger and better.

    With that preamble, allow me to present my gee-whiz, one-size-fits-all tech solution for the Bombay trains: a mega-size x-ray machine!

    We already have something like that for cargo shipments here in the Singapore port; with a bit of an i(ndi)genious enhancement, surely, we can modify that for the Bombay local trains and attach it to one of those electrified gateways? Every train gets scanned at statistically significant random intervals; presumably, there’ll be someone at a control station notifying trotting aadmi on the ground towards possible targets; you know something like,

    Control Center:*cracckle* Bholu, check out the first class compartment; there’s a class IV suspicious article in the fifth bogey.
    Bholu:Ji sarkar (goes off to bogey 5)

    (Or its translation thereof into Mumbaiyya Hindi; rather bad at that, I’m afraid.)

  11. And Indians are very good at being nosy.

    I’m lovin’ this…that irritating trait that’s fuelled the anger of many an angst-filled hyphenated child, now becomes an official counter-terrorism strategy :-)

    Those dissecting the little details, calm down…if you read the post it’s an abstract idea, and I think it’s really important to at least start thinking about such measures rather than resorting to that other typical Indian response:

    ‘What to do?’

  12. Bombay trains have open windows and doors, so you can quickly jettison any bag

    The windows don’t have glass but they’re covered by bars.

    if people board between stations, then they can circumvent the CCTVs

    They’d be seen though. The tracks are fenced off (at least between Bandra and Churchgate), which is why they’re so clean.

    any solution should employ social capital more heavily than technology

    In the short term I agree with you, but in the long term India’s widely available cheap labor is usually an excuse to hack together a band-aid rather than permanently fix problems.

  13. Mass transit is a very vulnerable target. Why not simply get rid of them? It is the availability of subsidized mass transit that causes population to be concentrated in urban centers unnecessarily. If the population is widely dispersed then we won’t be an easy target for the terrorism and our quality of life will improve. Without Govt. intervention, people will automatically balance between economic needs and security and quality of life and thus zero in on (and continuously readjust) the population concentration. Remember the Mumbai’s dubbawallah’s system was not designed in a top-down fashion. It evolved as thousands of customers and dubbawallah interacted and produced an system that is working efficiently! That’s an important lesson to keep in mind!

  14. brown_fob (#9):

    The train in the image you shared is not fully packed. There is some space left for a few more people near the door :-)

  15. ::Any unattended bag on the train should promptly be thrown out by whoever sees it::

    This is a simplistic suggestion which doesn’t take into account the possible contents of suspect packages and the dangers that may result from simply throwing it away (how? where? by just anyone?). While it might be a good idea in theory to employ the “semi-skilled” to good use, I think your suggestion puts these very people at risk and also asks precisely those who may not know better to also take care of the disposal of such packages. I really think, given the current state of transportation there, it is best to ask people to be vigilant, and make sure that there are trained and capable authorities who would respond properly when alerted.

  16. So clearly I’ve been talking out of my kundi more than I realized. I haven’t actually ridden these trains, so my argument came out of an abstract insight about comparative advantage, and I’m willing to fully own up to my cluelessness. Mumbaikar, thanks very much for that useful description.

    The windows have bars and bags are stored apart from owners and the tracks are fenced in. None of these were facts I knew, and they weaken the particular proposal I’ve made. I’m not interested in defending that scheme in particular, just in trying to stir up thinking about what a good solution would look like.

    Question: do you think that this particular bag system will survive the bombings? I can’t imagine wanting to be the guy standing near the racks, putting people’s bags up. Will the racks go the way of luggage lockers in the USA? Will passengers continue to tolerate a system of unmatched luggage in the future even with the new CCTV?

    If the tracks are fenced in, then you could fence in the platforms as well, although that would create a tremendous choke point. Still, rather than putting very large, expensive and slow machines up front, why not check all bags by hand, new york style? These were pipe bombs – pretty easy to spot. I can’t think of a technology that is fast enough, or robust enough in Indian conditions, to process that many bags that effectively. I think the best solution will involve human capital of some sort.

  17. AH, you say

    “Mass transit is a very vulnerable target. Why not simply get rid of them? It is the availability of subsidized mass transit that causes population to be concentrated in urban centers unnecessarily. If the population is widely dispersed then we won’t be an easy target for the terrorism and our quality of life will improve.”

    Great, so we will have 6million people riding around on polluting mopeds and scooters. Its highly questionable that a subsidized mass-transit system has contributed to higher population densities. Without the subsidy, would the individual choose to travel farther on his own dime? Unlikely. I would argue that the reverse is more likely. Mass transit in Mumbai has not only contributed to growing suburbs farther afield, but has also improved the economy of the metropolis in general – by making it less expensive to interact/trade with others and by allowing people to allocate fewer resources to transportation and spend on other useful needs.

    Your point about the dabbawallahs being a highly evolved system is right on though. We can learn a few pointers, but it is very difficult to create such systems from scratch overnight.

  18. Mumbaikar – who slapped whom? The person who threw away the bag slapped the sleeping passenger for being an ass or the just awoken passenger slapped the hypervigilant passenger for ejecting his bag?

    AJK – I was suggesting a distributed solution – the bags would be ejected by whoever saw them out the door. If you had to call for the authorities, they might go off in that much time. Furthermore, while (as people have pointed out) the bombs are still dangerous, they are far less dangerous in an open area than an enclosed one, which magnifies their blast. The most important thing is to get them off the train. I’m trying to think about how they might be identified and removed as quickly as possible, using a system as robust as possible.

  19. do you think that this particular bag system will survive the bombings?

    Yes, because there are no other alternatives. However, people might start getting suspicious of certain people’s bags. Firstly, most commuters (even in those super-crowded trains) are kinda familiar with each other. A stranger may start arousing suspicion.

    I can’t imagine wanting to be the guy standing near the racks, putting people’s bags up.

    No other option. If you are there, you have to do it.

    Will the racks go the way of luggage lockers in the USA?

    Maybe.

    Will passengers continue to tolerate a system of unmatched luggage in the future even with the new CCTV?

    It works, in general, relying on a general level of trust. On the whole, blasts happen “statistically” pretty rarely and imposing security measures is way more costly and inconvenient. I think the system will continue.

  20. In the short term I agree with you, but in the long term India’s widely available cheap labor is usually an excuse to hack together a band-aid rather than permanently fix problems.

    Manish, as a gut reaction, I’m inclined to protest that statement, but could you please explain what you mean?

  21. From what I’ve heard the system is too open for these measures to be effective – if people board between stations,

    Manish’s original suggestion is the correct one, in my view. Close the system completely — do not allow people to board between stations, do not allow people without tickets to board the trains at all or even travel on them by hanging onto the outside of the carriages. Do not allow any sale of items by passing vendors through train windows/via the doors when the train has stopped at a station unless the vendors have been throroughly security-checked beforehand.

    Here in London, where there is an extensive overland and underground train network, the sheer number of passengers means that luggage is not security-checked except for one or two very high-profile stations, so I don’t think it would be possible to implement aiport-style baggage checks in India, except maybe in First Class carriages (which would result in terrorists just targetting 2nd & 3rd Class carriages instead).

  22. Ennis,

    If you had to call for the authorities, they might go off in that much time.

    An example as a point of comparison: Here in London, which as you know is also a high-profile target which has already undergone one terrorist attack on the train network, we are supposed to notify the nearest security guard and/or driver if we notice unattended baggage on the train (or on the platform) when the train is stationary. If the train is moving, I think there is an “emergency stop” lever/button in each carriage, which obviously simultaneously notifies the driver that there is a problem.

  23. In the short term I agree with you, but in the long term India’s widely available cheap labor is usually an excuse to hack together a band-aid rather than permanently fix problems.

    Manish – why is the tiffinwala system any more of a band-aid than a computerized system would be? Are you claiming at a social system is inherently less reliable than a technological one? Or are you saying something else about the way different systems are often implemented?

    In general, I’m indifferent to specific technology. A system is a system is a system – I’m neither a technophile nor a technophobe. Still, I think it is a good idea to use locally abundant resources and more importantly, to design a system which is robust. It’s not clear to me that huge bomb sniffing machines are either as effective or as robust as humans in this case.

  24. Mass transit is a very vulnerable target. Why not simply get rid of them?

    Because many more people die from automobile accidents and from pollution than die from bombings. Private transport, at current levels of pollution and traffic safety, has very very high externalities.

  25. Mumbaikar – who slapped whom? The person who threw away the bag slapped the sleeping passenger for being an ass or the just awoken passenger slapped the hypervigilant passenger for ejecting his bag?

    The persone who was about to throw away the bag slapped the sleepy passenger, and most of the other passengers intervened and chided the sleepy guy. He was apparently drunk or something.

  26. There is no way to effectively counter terrorism without improving ( bring transperancy, accountability & professionalism) into the entire law enforcement infrastructure. Any other piecemeal approach is a waste of time and gives a false sense of security. It is time some one

    If you can get arrest warrants issued against the president and cheif justice for INR 40k and fake driver’s license for the same amount. http://www.hinduonnet.com/2004/04/28/stories/2004042800801500.htm

  27. And it wont stop a suicide bomber with explosives strapped to his or her clothes.

    In the jam packed Mumbai railway stations, a suicide bomber would automatically explode even before he/she gets a chance to step into the train. I think suicide bombing can only be done by carrying the bomb in his/her suitcases. That could be the only loophole that can be exploited by Suicide bombers. because in Mumbai trains, one can feel another man’s ribs against ur arms :-)

  28. Great discussion and post, Ennis. You are right in saying that we need to look for a solution that is Indian enough to work. The bombs were planted in first class compartments – possibly because in the regular/second class compartments it is virtually impossible to carry any bags with you during rush hour. This incident is going to make people a lot more aware of their fellow passengers and unattendted baggage. I am confident that and the new security measures will make terrorists less likely to repeat a train bomb. The question is what will their next target be..Most major hotels, shopping malls and theaters have no security to speak off.

  29. How much would watching out for a bag without an owner have helped in this case? Update on the bomb transport procedure, from DNA:

    Police believe they planted the bombs after boarding the trains at Churchgate station and alighted at Bombay Central and Dadar stations. “They acted in pairs to avoid arousing suspicion,” the officer said. “The one bearing the suitcase got off at Bombay Central and the other at Dadar. If an alert passenger asked the one who got off at Bombay Central why he was leaving his suitcase behind, the accomplice would have claimed to be the owner of the suitcase.”
  30. Very interesting. Still, once the accomplice claims the bomb, then the accomplice has to leave with the bomb or be on the train when the bomb explodes.

    Same article implies that the men and woman involved were not ideological zealots, and so they did not want to be on board when the explosion occurred:

    An investigating officer said the mastermind recruited the couriers with the lure of money and brainwashed them. The couriers were dressed in formal attire with the men wearing ties to look like typical first-class commuters. They concealed the bombs in black suitcases.
  31. The only option, it seems to me, is to install better security at ALL station entrances and exits. Local train stations in Bombay are much too unsecured, sometimes the entrance seems like just another alleyway in a crowded neighbourhood, anyone can walk in and out. Yes, it will take a huge financial and infrastructural outlay, but don’t we deserve it? Isn’t it about time that the system was upgraded anyway since it was not supposed to carry so many peple to begin with.

  32. doug saunders with the globe and mail is one man who opens a new window for me every week. i come away enriched and enthralled. this week he covered the aftermath of the blasts in mumbai; offered canadians a window into mumbai.

    There are deep wells of resentment. Muslims resent the police, as well as the still-potent Hindu nationalists, for making them less equal. Those without water — and this week, it was announced that water shortages were plaguing huge swaths of the city — resent those who can afford to wash. And everyone resents the city authorities, for making this the world’s largest experiment in pure, state-of-nature laissez-faire capitalism — not out of ideology, but simply because the city is too corrupt and too incompetent to provide a small city’s worth of resources to a large nation’s worth of people packed on a tiny island.

    he uses the tiffin-wallahs and their life as a snapshot of the city’s workings. read on.

  33. as a gut reaction, I’m inclined to protest that statement, but could you please explain what you mean?

    Why widen the drains? Just send someone at 300 rupees/day to clean them by hand.

    Why resurface the roads? Just have someone fill in the potholes every monsoon season.

    Why build a garbage chute? Just have a kachrawalla (garbage person) collect it from your house every morning.

    Why build a credit reputation system? Just have someone show up at your house to collect money from you.

    And on and on…

  34. doug saunders with the globe and mail is one man who opens a new window for me every week.

    That window is fogged up:

    Then you turn on a much narrower dirt lane, most of its surface a thick mud of filth and excrement. The houses here are tiny squares of dirty brick, with corrugated fibreglass sheets slapped on top as roofs. Most don’t have doors. His home occupies two rooms, and has sheets of plywood for a floor. Visitors would call this the worst sort of slum, a malarial shantytown. In Mumbai, however, it’s considered a middle-class neighbourhood.

    Um, no, that’s not called middle class here.