Guest Column | Gatekeepers of Society

The role of private security in current pandemic situation is critical

Col Kul Bhushan (retd)Col Kul Bhushan (retd)

India’s chowkidars of yesteryears are now organised into private security services and boast a strength of over seven million. This is approximately five times the strength of the Indian police force. Worldwide private security services are a multi-billion dollar industry.

Today, the ‘guards’ dovetailed with electronic and hardware resources are securing residential and commercial complexes, services, communications, transportation etc. They guard an ATM kiosk, protect important personalities or simply take care of millions of currency in transit, thus enabling a safe and secure environment. Although not meant to replace the regular police, they supplement them, take the load off an overburdened and overstretched police force and fill gaps which the force finds difficult because of paucity of manpower.

The devastating coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) that has gripped the world is unprecedented in recent history. Last time the world faced similar devastation was when it was hit by Spanish Flu in 1918. Since generations have lived past that time, the faded memories and forgotten lessons of 1918 pandemic have left us with scant precedence to follow, resulting in slow reactions even by the most advanced nations. India by far has fared the best; our Stringency Index and slow rising positive cases is proof of this. Hard decisions taken by the government, strict enforcements and health compliances, barring few exceptions, have saved lives, the account of which may be subject of a study later.

While the political leadership has made bold decisions and the bureaucracy has come out with a clear roadmap, the medical services, maintenance staff, police and essential service providers are the true heroes in our fight against Covid-19. Undeterred by personal safety threats, they are fighting battles as frontline soldiers. However, one of the many other elements who are contributing to the cause and yet remain unrecognised is the private security. These services have been tirelessly working round the clock to ensure success of lockdown in their respective areas of responsibility. In these challenging times it would not be out of turn to highlight their role, dovetail them with police, and employ them more proactively so that the load on the force is reduced, thus freeing them for other important tasks. This would enable the police achieve better efficiency and address areas not yet covered.

Despite each individual being clear on the manner the virus infects and knows prevention techniques, the majority believes that the disease will not strike them. The social media, to which each one of us is now exposed to, is also not playing a positive role and is confusing and misdirecting the general public by fake forwards. Here, the security guards can take on the role of spreading authentic and official government version. The security agencies can be earmarked as the authorised communicators and the security guards can make announcements on mobile public address systems about guidelines, restrictions in place and other posts the local administration want to communicate to general public in specific areas.

Handling rogue elements who have been threatening the doctors and healthcare workers is another challenge being faced by the administration. Safety of these individuals while in hospitals, in transit or at their places of stay can be assigned to the private security personnel, thus giving them confidence to move and work without fear.

Villages in India are cohesive entities and villagers still follow traditional approach while dealing with natural or manmade threats. In the present circumstances, majority of villages have gone back to ‘pehra’ (community guarding) system to keep away outsiders coming in as well as prevent any person from going out of the village. The ‘pehra’ committees are ruthlessly guarding and patrolling villages which has kept the disease at bay at most places. But the most affected by Covid-19 have been the housing societies, ‘mohallas’ and ‘galis’ (urban clusters, lanes and by lanes).

The nationwide lockdown is being effectively imposed by police in identified hotspots, on main roads and highways, and markets but when it comes to individual localities, the lockdown is ineffective as people there are blatantly defying movement restrictions. The security guards responsible for keeping people in check here are hired by societies themselves and since these guards are on the residents’ payroll, the latter consider the former no more than their private servants. Even during these difficult times they openly refuse to listen to security guards and keep issuing threats such as ‘mere ko phechanta nahi tu’ (don’t you recognise me).

This demoralising and discouraging of guards manifests in extremely low social distancing enforcements. Since the limited number of police persons cannot be deployed everywhere, an alternative can be that of swapping of roles. For example, private security guards can be deployed in police stations, thus providing the police personnel time to enforce lockdown in societies, lanes and bylanes. The heavy hand of law will keep people restricted to their homes and thus enforce social distancing.

Like most professions, security is a specialised field. Because of surplus availability of workforce in our country they are valued less and hardly ever listened to. Every adult and every child that comes out of his/ her home has a suggestion to offer as to how the guard should sit/ stand/ work/ talk. Ideally, the minimum level of authority to whom the security head in any organisation or society should report to is the vice president, but invariably he is asked to report to the officer lowest in hierarchy. The advice given by the security head is invariably brushed aside since the hierarchy considers him no better than themselves. This results in unprofessionalism which in turns sends confusing signals to the last man in chain, resulting in poor enforcement of orders on ground. To overcome this all organisations should upgrade reporting levels of security heads which will enable direct advice to decision makers, resulting in implementation of orders without dilution, more so in the present circumstances.

The security guards of today do not live in makeshift tents or garages. Easy availability of conveyance and low rentals of accommodation in urban India allows affordability of single room sets where guards pool in to stay. However, in the present circumstances movement of persons from place of stay to work site may invite spread of virus. This needs to be curtailed. The organisations, plants or societies where these guards have been deployed should be compassionate and follow in the footsteps of Ratan Tata. They should temporarily earmark accommodation and food etc for guards at the workplace itself. This will help overcome fear of infection and also aid in improving overall productivity of the private security guards.

The pandemic has put brakes on the global economy and all industrial activity has come to a grinding halt. But once the crisis is over, the world is likely to see a massive shift in multinational collaborations and many countries are likely to shift production bases from China to more stable democracies such as India. The restart of operations and handling new opportunities will be a challenge after the lockdown. Private security leadership must prepare now to grab new openings and act as a force multiplier in economic growth and development of our nation.

Covid-19 has challenged, though temporarily, our way of living and lifestyle. The first rule to fight this virus tells people to stay away from each other. This contradicts the way we have been living our lives so far. The paradigm shift demanded by the pandemic is resisted by many people not out of defiance but because of our ingrained habits developed over ages. But since there is no defence or a medicine to fight coronavirus, we have to re-adjust to new way of life till such time we defeat it.

Private security is a resource which, if used optimally, will help in ensuring impositions of lockdown rules, thus saving lives and achieving our goals in a much shorter timeframe. Issues such as compensation, legal powers, medical, insurance etc should be considered when employing private security guards in this broader role.

(The writer is currently working as chief security officer with NTPC Township, Dadri)


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