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By Rina Chandran
MUMBAI (Reuters) - The paramilitary troops outside the Trident and Taj Mahal hotels suggest a higher level of security a year after militants laid siege to Mumbai, but it may all be a mirage as the country still remains very vulnerable.
While some improvements in security have meant there has not been another attack by Islamist militants since Mumbai, the country's many chaotic cities and its 1.2 billion people make it almost impossible to plug all security loopholes.
"I can't say there won't be another attack or a blast," said D. Sivanandan, Mumbai's police chief. "But if something happens, our response will be quicker and better."
The challenges Mumbai faces in preventing militant attacks are echoed in other Indian cities crippled by an underpaid and under-trained police force and a bureaucracy unable to respond quickly to the new threats.
In Mumbai's main train station, one of the 10 sites gunmen attacked and claimed most of their 166 victims last year, door-frame metal detectors remain unmanned. Luggage are not checked. Mumbai's coastline, breached by the gunmen, is still largely unprotected.
"Nothing has changed. We are no better off than we were on 26/11," said Ajai Sahni, a senior security analyst at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi.
"The fact that there hasn't been another major attack in the last year has nothing do with how good we have become; it's about the greater pressure on Pakistan."
India has refused resumption of peace talks with Pakistan and sought to bring international pressure on Islamabad to act against the militant groups operating from its soil including the Lashkar-e-Taiba that it blamed for the attack last year.
It has also raised its defence budget by a fourth and allowed private firms to hire paramilitary forces.
Police chief Sivanandan points to recent additions like quick response teams, speedboats, combat vehicles and a hub for elite commandos as measures taken to improve preparedness.
Home Minister P. Chidambaram has said the country's vulnerability to attacks has not diminished or enhanced, but that measures such as better intelligence gathering have improved its capacity to deal with them.
"India seems to have learnt a few lessons from last year, and there is greater integration in policy making and an effort to create new institutional structures and revamp existing ones," said Brahma Chellaney at the Centre for Policy Research.
"But ultimately, no country can prevent a terror attack."
The recent arrest of two men in Chicago linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba on charges of plotting attacks in Denmark and India illustrate the threat India continues to face.
A former member of the LeT said this week the group will not leave India in peace.
Mumbai, India's financial capital and a city of 18 million people, presents a snapshot of problems in securing the country.
It's 48,000 police, caught flat-footed last year with their World War II-era rifles and faulty flak jackets, are the city's first line of defence and possibly its weakest link as well.
"Given India's history, it's only a matter of time before a major attack of terror happens again," Chellaney said.
"The question to ask now is: are we better prepared to respond next time? The answer is yes."
For more stories on the Mumbai attacks see:
(Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and Sanjeev Miglani)