Friday, August 01, 2008

Keeping their eyes and ears open

The six-member bomb squad, with the latest equipment, is trying to keep Kochi safe

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 8 a.m. on a Tuesday, E.M. Madanan, SI of the Bomb Detection and Disposal Squad, arrives at Ernakulam North station. The broad-shouldered officer is wearing a blue-T shirt and jeans. He heads to the Technical Unit van, which is placed near the entrance.

His colleagues, K.R. Prashanth and driver A.T. Raju, are already there. Inside the van, as a voice from the walkie-talkie, placed on a seat, drones on, Madanan shows the equipment. “This is the Deep Search Metal Detector,” he says, pointing at a long black rod. “This enables us to search for explosives placed under the ground.”

The other equipment includes the ‘under vehicle inspection cameras,’ a portable x-ray machine, mine detectors, as well as a high explosives detection equipment. “This particular apparatus has been imported from Russia at a cost of Rs 13 lakh,” says head constable Prashanth. Madanan says the total value of the equipment in the van is Rs. 1 crore.

It has been a busy time for the six-member squad, ever since the blasts at Bangalore and Ahmedabad rocked the nation. “We had to check out a series of hoax calls,” he says. “We have been taught to treat each call as genuine, till it proves to be a hoax.”

This was instilled in them during their 45-day training stint at the Tamil Nadu Commando School at Chennai and the National Security Guard at Haryana.

“We know the public look oddly at the seriousness with which we attend to these calls,” says Madanan. “But there may come a day when we will get a genuine call.”

However, there is a worrying factor about these calls. “These hoax calls may be test runs for terrorists,” says head constable B. Radhakrishnan. “They may want to observe our response, and look for loopholes in the security.”

According to the rules, the squad is supposed to reach any area, within the city, where the bomb is located, within 20 minutes. “However, the traffic being what it is, we tend to get delayed,” says Head Constable P.R. Sabu.

Amazingly, the van does not have a siren. “Instead, we blow the horn and switch on the headlights,” says Madanan. “Also, the traffic policeman is able to identify us easily and tries to make space for us.”

So how risky is the job? “You could die if you make a mistake,” says Prashanth. “That is why only one technician, clad in a bomb suit, is sent to defuse a bomb.”

All the members had opted for the job. “I was looking for variety and challenges,” says Prashanth. “There is a risk in any job. You can be a traffic policeman and a bus can hit you and you could die.”

For the families, there is widespread anxiety. Says Latha Madanan, mother of two children: “I have been worried for the past few days.” Last Sunday, when there was a hoax call that a bomb would explode at 7 p.m., Madanan left halfway through his lunch at home. “I was in constant touch on the mobile,” says Latha. “My husband returned at midnight and left at 4 a.m.”

Despite being on their toes, to detect a bomb these days is turning out to be a Herculean task for the squad. “That is because of the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) by terrorists,” says Sabu. “Now, they can hide a bomb in a doll, a toy or a flower bouquet.”

But, if by luck or dogged investigation, a bomb is discovered, then the squad follows standard procedures. “The first thing we do is not to disturb it,” says Prashanth. The squad then secures the area by ensuring that the public is moved away. Then they will use the X-ray machine to see what is inside the bomb.

“Nowadays, thanks to innovations by terrorists, if you just touch the bomb, or make a noise, it might explode,” says Madanan. “We have to check whether it has a timer device placed on an electronic board.”

After identifying the type of bomb, a squad member, in order to defuse it, dons a bomb suit. “It has a bullet proof vest,” says Madanan. “Anti-ballistic material is embedded all over. So, a man can withstand a bomb blast containing up to half a kilo of RDX.”

Incidentally, this suit costs Rs 15 lakh and has been imported from South Africa. In Kerala, there are five suits in the four police ranges of Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam, Thrissur and Kozhikode.

A few weeks ago, the squad located a pipe bomb at Info Park, Kakkanad. A man had thrown it at another man, who was traveling in a car. “However, when we analysed it, we discovered that it was an IED, containing gelatine, with a nine-second time-delay mechanism,” says Madanan. “It would have been dangerous if it had exploded.”

It seems the man who threw it did not know how to activate it. “It was a close shave,” says Madanan, shaking his head.

So, what are the possibilities of a terrorist attack occurring in Kochi? “The chances are high,” says Madanan. “There are intelligence reports which confirm that several terrorists have taken refuge in Kerala.”

Despite this, the public has an irritated attitude towards the security measures set up at the entrance to the North station: several plastic barricades and a metal detector.

“What is the point of only securing the entrance?” says Thomas Scaria, 40. “The station is accessible from so many other points.” His friend, Mohana Chandran, says, “Why should a terrorist use the entrance to gain access to the station?”

A police officer, unconnected with the bomb squad, says, “What they are saying is right. We are doing this to raise public confidence. Otherwise, the people will stay at home.”

Meanwhile, Madanan and Prashant have set out on an inspection of the station. With an explosive detector and an electronic stethoscope, they check the various rooms, the luggage of passengers, and the goods, of varying sizes, that have been deposited on the platforms. Nothing dangerous has been detected so far. And so, Kochi can breathe a sigh of relief. But for how long, nobody knows.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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