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FLIGHT IN SECURITY - How Indian airports take to knives, lighters and tennis balls

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The Thin Edge -Ruchir Joshi Published 03.01.10, 12:00 AM

And so the first decade of the new millennium comes to an end, at least according to some people. Thinking and reading about the last ten years you get the feeling that everything was invented anew at the turn of the century, all the gizmos, all the politics and all the terrors. The only thing exempt from this chronological chop-off point seems to be the environment. Moving away from the discussion around the climate meltdown and working my way through other forests of theory, analysis and assorted gravitas, I tried to find something that was both serious and yet hilariously funny, something that spans the changeover of century and millennium, something that is somewhat the same and yet now different. Going through a series of airport and other security checks recently, I came face to face with one of these phenomena.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the first thought in many Indians’ heads was “That could never have happened over here. The airport checks would have caught the packing knives the terrorists used to slash the pilots’ throats.” Now, this might not be absolutely true, but there was a strong feeling that the security at the airports where the planes took off, in New York and Boston, botched up big-time; that was America for you, as stupidly smug and lax before the butchery as it was now out of control in its lust for revenge. We Indians, on the other hand, had had serious security since the Kanishka bombing in 1985, a good 15 years of it by that time in 2001. Suddenly, we forgave the Indian airport paramilitary their rudeness, we forgave the fact that many Indian airports had outside them burgeoning roadside businesses in reselling slightly used AA batteries, the same that had been diligently confiscated by our protectors in khaki from flashlights, cameras and Walkmans; we forgave the delays and the chaos and the missed flights because of un-stamped baggage tags, all of it.

It was a year later that I began to doubt the efficacy of our aviation-dwarpals. I was travelling with my two boys to Ahmedabad from Delhi. We traversed all the normal security checks before coming up against a final, special one just before we boarded the bus to the aircraft. As the security man began to rummage through my backpack, I realized with a plummeting heart that I had forgotten to pack my expensive all-purpose knife in my checked luggage; I’d managed to leave it in the front compartment of my backpack. As one security man was going through my backpack, getting closer and closer to discovering the knife, the other man noticed that my older son was clutching a tennis ball in his hand.

“Sir, this not allowed!”

“What not allowed?”

“This ball. Round bomb-like object. Not allowed.”

“What? It’s a kid with a tennis ball!” I took the ball and bounced it on the ground, doing my best impression of Pete Sampras. “Look! Not a bomb. Here, you squeeze it.”

The man took the ball and squeezed it. “No sir. Ball. Spherical object, therefore not allowed.” He shook his head with finality.

Meanwhile, the other guy had discovered my precious Leatherman which contained not one but three quite lethally sharp blades. The thing was, the blades were tucked away out of sight in the twin handles, which also folded open to form a pair of small pliers. I tried my luck. “Just pliers, look.” I opened up the pliers and handed it to the man, still thinking I was sunk. The guard examined it and gave it back to me.

“This is okay, sir, but ball not allowed.”

My sons were now looking slightly distraught at their ball being taken away. I didn’t care, I was filled with relief. “Okay,” I said, quickly putting away my ‘pliers’, “please take the ball.”

The man took the ball and held it up. “Sir, please look. We will now dispose.” The second man took out a pair of large tailor’s scissors, obviously kept handy precisely for all the tennis balls passing through. He sliced the ball in half and made to hand the two halves back to my son.

“I don’t want it.” My son said.

“Okay, no problem,” said the guard with friendly regret, disposing the murdered half-spheres into a dustbin at his feet, while we boarded the bus complete with my Leatherman which was at least twice as sharp as the tinny packing knives that brought down two very large buildings on a September Tuesday and killed hundreds of thousands as a result.

Recently, a variation of this theatre of the absurd repeated itself. In the intervening years, I’ve managed to be ‘security-tagged’ on four consecutive domestic flights in the United States of America despite travelling with an all-American-looking companion: I’ve had shoes checked, belts examined, liquids confiscated, the lot; laptops have been switched on and off, their batteries taken out and put back, sometimes the machine needs to be in the bag, nowadays it needs to be out of the bag, no doubt soon they will have a way of reading all that’s inside (if they don’t already, so that your future actions and motives can be quarantined, perhaps before you even think them up). I’ve travelled abroad every year as the ball-game (please to forgive pun) changed in terms of what was allowed and proscribed, and I’ve watched fascinatedly as the species has gone through these increasingly strange rituals in order to protect itself from itself. The one big difference between foreign security procedures in Europe and America and in India, now that AA batteries are kosher again, is the attitude the scanning staff have towards cigarette-lighters and matches.

A couple of weeks ago, on my way back from London to Calcutta, I stopped over in Delhi. Early one morning, I went to the spanking new domestic terminal at the Indira Gandhi International airport to catch the flight to NSB/Dum Dum. Looking around, I was very impressed: a huge Stansted airport-like shed with long banners hanging down; a substantial bookshop, fancy stores with crystal and perfumes and knick-knacks; four different kinds of snack-counters; Wi-Fi and fixed computers for the net; indeed, the cherry on the icing for a nicotine victim like myself, a decently sized smoking room (yes, the Chinese are coming!) I’d been through security already and all I needed to do before boarding was to grab a quick bite, so I ordered a plain dosa and settled down to enjoy it. Now, I’ve been flying since 1965 and have never once had the pleasure of hearing my name on the PA system, but before my second mouthful there I was, being summoned to report to my airline’s ground staff immediately. I binned my fresh dosa and jogged to the exit gate where I was told to accompany a member of the airline’s security detail. I followed him to a room where I deposited my backpack and then he and a khaki-type led me into the innards of the luggage processing hall. It all looked very efficient and straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Orwell’s 1984. My escorts led me to another room where a brisk but kind young woman in a khaki sari was waiting with my suitcase.

“Please open sir. You have a lighter in this bag.”

“Yes, I do, but why can’t I take it? It’s checked in.”

“Dangerous chemicals sir. Not allowed.”

I argued, but to no avail. I pointed out that nowhere else in the world did they confiscate lighters and matches but nothing doing, no go. If I had someone in Delhi who could come and collect the offending thing, they would happily hand it over to that person. I didn’t have anyone who I could ask to spend several hours and several hundred rupees to make the trek to collect cheap disposable lighters. I opened the bag, pulled out two lighters and handed them over to the lady, who gave them to the airline security man. I shut the bag and was sent on my way. I didn’t mention I’d only pulled out two of six small lighters I had in the bag; neither did I mention that two more lighters had come through in my backpack without anyone noticing them. I reckoned six lighters were more than enough to quickly give me a fire as I stepped out to the taxi rank at Dum Dum. There was a slight anxiety, of course: if I could fool these diligent people then what else was getting through the baggage and carry-on X-rays? And would it interfere with my reaching my destination?

A couple of days later, again accompanied by my backpack, I decided to take the Calcutta metro. Again there was a check, an affable black-and-white mama apologetically checked my backpack, which has three compartments closed by clearly visible zips. The mama opened the most obvious zipper and peered in and waved me on; down in the tube, a second check, again the same thing, the first compartment checked, the other two quite spacious ones left untouched. It suddenly occurred to me that Calcutta security personnel are as familiar with backpacks as those security guards all those years ago were familiar with the Leatherman multi-tool. The conclusion I came to was either we’ve been extremely lucky all these years since 1985, or that there’s some other highly sophisticated system at the disposal of our much-vaunted security apparatus and all this physical checking is just a way to both hassle and reassure the ordinary citizen. Neither reality makes me look back at the last 25 years with any happiness nor to the next ten, say, with any sense of safety.

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