Last week's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which targeted two of the city's top business hotels, are again confronting chief executives and human resource managers with the questions they have wrestled with for some time: Can their companies react with speed and precision to minimize casualties and limit damage in situations such as these?

The answer is mostly no, as a team of Mint reporters who worked on this story found.

As terrorists strike Indian cities from Bangalore to New Delhi, Ahmedabad to Jaipur and, most recently, Mumbai, with alarming frequency and impunity, what is becoming evident is that a workplace such as yours could be the next target.

But most Indian firms (as also places with large public concentrations such as shopping malls, hospitals or even schools) just don't have the systems in place to deal with attacks that rank high on sophistication and planning, as last week's strikes in south Mumbai.

Awareness of the need for security and preparedness is highest among local units of multinational entities and sectors such as information technology, in which companies have security clauses written into their contracts with overseas clients, says Chiranjit Banerjee, general partner at Peopleplus Consulting, a Bangalore-based human resources firm.

The mindset, according to one urban security expert, is otherwise still thrifty towards security and related processes, limiting such efforts to X-ray frames or physical inspections of vehicles.

Hotels, for instance, "are more receptive to buying luxury cars for visitors but (even today) make token investments by opting for metal detectors instead of explosive vapour detection systems," says Diwan Rahul Nanda, global chairman and managing director of Tops Security and Services Group. "Metal detectors cannot detect chemical or plastic explosives that terrorists these days use."

The cost of such vapour detection systems begins at Rs4 lakh and ranges up to Rs40 lakh. Sticker prices on sophisticated trace detection or backscatter X-ray equipment, both of which can detect chemicals even if they are present only in ion-level quantities or produce a skin-level body image, can run into millions of dollars, which explains why their use is mostly restricted to airports or border crossings.

To be sure, some companies have begun opening the purse-strings. At Gurgaon's Ambience Mall, says Deepak Kapur, general manager of mall operations, three ?non-linear junction detectors? or devices that detect material even if they do not have embedded electronics (such as timers or triggers) were installed three months ago at a cost of Rs12 lakh.

To scan underneath cars and other vehicles, Ambience Developers and Infrastructure Pvt. Ltd, the company that owns the mall, has devices with cameras mounted at the end, instead of mirrors, that transmit pictures to a hand-held monitor.

DLF Ltd, India's biggest real estate company by revenues, says it too goes beyond just checking the bags of employees and visitors at its offices. "For instance, we have CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras around the offices and inside," says Rajiv Talwar, group executive director at the realty company. DLF consults international and Indian security firms regularly, he added, declining to name the firms.

Still, such measures, said most of the some two dozen executives and experts interviewed for this story, are not fool-proof in an age of suicide terrorists and human bombers. Harsh Vardhan, chief executive of TerraForce Security Services Pvt. Ltd, part of the DLF Group, lays emphasis equally on systems within companies to deal with the aftermath of an attack or a natural disaster.

Even in instances where employers have so-called disaster mitigation and business continuity plans, ?in most cases it's just advisories and messages sent to the employees to stay away from a particular area or avoid a particular situation?, says A.S. Bedi, a vice-president at Wal-Mart's joint venture with Bharti Enterprises Ltd, who handles asset protection and security.

Some such as the Aditya Birla business group, the local unit of PepsiCo Inc. or India's top tech and back office service firms say they have processes that address situations arising out of attacks or emergencies.

PepsiCo India Holdings Pvt. Ltd has, for the last six years, in place what is calls a crisis management team comprising six managers from different functions and headed by a non-executive board member. The Gurgaon-based company, which spends Rs5 crore a year on security in India, is looking to install a digital system, which will help zero in on an employee's location. "There are technological solutions available which can help us track our employees and also enable them to reach out in case of emergency," says Pavan Bhatia, executive director for human resources at PepsiCo India.

After last week?s attacks, a travel advisory was sent out from PepsiCo's Purchase, New York, headquarters against its people travelling to Mumbai, he added.

At mining company Vedanta Resource Plc.'s Indian operations, "top performing management trainees are given the opportunity to work as shift security officers periodically before they take on their respective roles," says A. Thirunavukkarasu, president, group human resources, at the company that engages 15 different agencies to take care of its plants and its 20,000 employees.

Thirunavukkarasu says the company has installed biometric entry protection systems at select locations.

In Bangalore, Infosys Technologies Ltd, India?s second ranked tech services company by revenues, has a business contingency group that takes over when a crisis happens. ?It is activated immediately. They will do a round-the-clock monitoring? in the event of a crisis, says T.V. Mohandas Pai, director and head of human resources at the firm.

Infosys says it has disaster recovery centres, mandated in customer contracts, spread across multiple locations that it doesn?t disclose.

Like Infosys, Aditya Birla group firms and several others mandate that no two senior staff take the same flight when they travel and provide personal security to senior personnel.

Santrupt Misra, group director for human resources at Aditya Birla group, which includes companies such as Grasim Industries Ltd and UltraTech Cement Ltd, won?t reveal details but says his company has in place clear processes for events that require ?drop-dead succession?. The group works closely with firms such as International SOS Online Inc., a top name in worldwide emergency health care assistance and security services.

The oil-to-steel conglomerate, Essar Group, keeps its emergency response system on its toes by internal and external safety audit checks by risk management companies, said a senior executive, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to talk with the media. Some 90% of the group's sites in Hazira and Vadinar, both in Gujarat, and its corporate office in Mumbai follow the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration norms that focus on workplace safety and health.

Insurance-related processes help, this executive said. "We conduct mock drills (nine in the last 18 months at the refinery) and rehearse it to insurance companies for cover," he said.

Mahindra and Mahindra group, whose flagship is an eponymous auto maker, set up Mahindra Special Services Group, a team to protect the business group's assets, in 2000. The unit has since evolved into a business that serves the likes of Hindustan Unilever Ltd, ICICI Bank Ltd, Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd and Essar. It devises contingency plans for emergencies.

Says Raghu Raman, chief executive of Mahindra Special Services Group, "Certain locations that have been identified will be turned into a command centre, where external lines will be laid out, fax machines set up, additional mobile phones set up and several new communication lines are opened up."

Formerly an army captain, Raman rues what he calls the "moralistic" attitude of Indian companies and chief executives who lay the responsibility for security entirely at the government's door.

"It is high time corporate India wakes up; it cannot be an individualistic selfish view," he says, hoping this lesson has been driven down into the heads of the influentials for the first time after last week's attacks.

"I think we lost a few billion dollars last weekend," he says. "Corporate India will realize that we need to have a paradigm change in the way we deal with terrorism."

Raghu Krishnan in Banglaore, and Shauvik Ghosh, Shabana Hussain and Rasul Bailay in New Delhi contributed to this story.