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Is Delhi’s heavy surveillance making women safer?

Delhi Is Turning Into A Surveillance City, Replete With CCTV Cameras, Under The Guise Of Protecting Women. But Are Women Any Safer Than Before?

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An Indian worker installs a security camera along a street in New Delhi, India, Thursday, March 11, 2021. Credit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

Delhi has a reputation as one of India’s least safe cities for women. Yet in the heart of India’s capital, Mallika Taneja, a Delhi-based artist, has formed a space that provides other women a feeling of togetherness, solidarity, friendship, and allows them to see and smell the night – on foot.

Women Walk at Midnight” is an initiative from Taneja, who describes walking as a “profoundly political act.” It was born out of the idea to form communities of women, centered around streets and neighborhoods, that appear at night and disappear by sunrise, leaving visible traces on the streets of the city.

However, the roads and the streets that these women occupy in the night are littered with closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras. This makes Taneja and the women who participate in these walks conscious of the constant surveillance that follows their every step.

Recently, India’s capital has become one of the most surveilled cities in the world, with 1,826.58 cameras per square mile, according to a Comparitech report. Comparitech’s earlier analysis was based upon cameras per 1,000 people and Chinese cities topped the list. For 2021, it expanded its study to look at the number of cameras per square mile. Two Indian cities – Delhi and Chennai – have more cameras per square mile than any Chinese city.

While many see this as a cause of concern, the report was met with jubilation by the Delhi government. Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal hailed it as a feather in the cap. He tweeted,

The stated reason behind the push to expand CCTV cameras was to ensure that the city becomes safer for women. Delhi has a reputation for being an unsafe city for women in India. According to the latest data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Delhi recorded 10,093 crimes against women in 2020 as compared to 13,395 cases in 2019 and 13,640 cases in 2018. However, the dip in the number of cases is possibly on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to under-reporting of cases. The crime rate for 2020 is still twice the number of cases registered in other Indian cities like Mumbai, Pune, Ghaziabad, or Indore.

Multiple studies in the past have suggested that there is no correlation between a decrease in crime rate and an increase in the number of CCTV cameras in a city. While no specific study has been done to study the correlation between crimes in Delhi and use of CCTV cameras, one study that evaluated the effects of CCTV in Cambridge city details that “CCTV had no effect on crime according to survey data, and an undesirable effect on crime according to police records.” It also added that while CCTV had no effect on crime in reality, it may have caused increased reporting to and/or recording by the police.

CCTV installation was advanced in Delhi following the widespread protests that engulfed the country following the multi-perpetrator rape of a young woman in New Delhi in 2012. The victim, who died of injuries sustained in the attack, was known widely in the media as Nirbhaya, or “Fearless,” in Indian media. The Nirbhaya Fund was set up by the central government in the immediate aftermath of the incident and it was agreed that CCTV cameras would form a part of technological solutions in order to make cities safer for women.

Between 2010-2018, about 5,000 CCTV cameras were installed by Delhi Police. In response to a Right to Information application filed by Ambika Tandon and Aayush Rathi – authors of the 2019 paper “Capturing Gender and Class Inequities: The CCTVisation of Delhi” – none of the cameras had been installed under the Nirbhaya Fund. The paper also summarized an official of the ministry responsible for the fund indicating that “the ministry’s outlook now was that CCTV systems are not to be funded out of the [Nirbhaya Fund] as they were ineffective in enhancing safety – at least in the ministry’s articulation of safety – and were more effective for the purposes of investigation.”

What Do Delhi’s Women Say?

Sonali Vyas, program head at Safetipin, a Delhi-based social organization that focuses on making public spaces safer and more inclusive for women, echoes the same sentiment. “CCTV cameras have helped in collecting evidence after a crime has occurred, not prevented it. There are multiple instances wherein the cameras weren’t even monitored properly,” she said.

Talking about how the government can ensure cities are safer for women, she added that cities need to be made safer by design – ensuring proper infrastructure. She listed a slew of measures which the government can implement: “Proper lighting, ensuring safe last mile connectivity, ensuring that women are dropped closer to their home instead of the bus stop while travelling late at night, and setting up of a proper redressal mechanism when crimes are reported by women.”

She also added that if the government plans to use digital solutions, they must be implemented properly and it can’t be done “half-way through.”

Some women may actually feel less safe around the surveillance cameras. Ambika Tandon, who works as a senior policy officer at Centre for Internet and Society, said that women who come from marginalized backgrounds often see CCTV as a tool that could be used to criminalize them further and add additional layers of surveillance. “From my interactions with women, they said that more patrolling by police, better street lights help in a better manner to ensure safety than CCTV cameras, which might be handy in a post-facto kind of scenario.”

Privacy Concerns

Privacy experts have raised concerns about the incessant deployment of CCTV cameras across the capital. Jai Vipra, a senior resident fellow at Vidhi Legal Policy, said that women’s safety is the first excuse brought up to ramp up CCTV surveillance in a city: “It is also the easiest and most ‘visible’ measure a government can take to show that it cares about women’s safety, whereas to actually keep women safe, a multi-pronged approach has to be followed.”

Meanwhile, the function of the cameras in reality is different than the stated purposed. “Surveillance intensifies the targeting of the people that the police already targets. This can mean different groups in different countries, but often includes minorities and the marginalized,” Vipra explained.

In the words of Anushka Jain, an associate counsel analyzing surveillance and transparency at Internet Freedom Foundation, “The resultant constant surveillance of women not only violates their privacy but also perpetuates existing patriarchal controls and limits the choice for women.”

The absence of a data protection law, which is yet to be passed by India’s Parliament, and lack of legal basis or safeguards in place to regulate the deployment of CCTV cameras means there are grave concerns about how the data collected through these cameras is stored, processed, and shared further. In light of this, Jain said, “In Delhi, CCTV feeds can be accessed by Resident Welfare Associations, Market Association, local police and the Public Works Department as per a non-legal Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). The one-page SOP issued by the Public Works Department of the Delhi Government on August 27, 2018 is untethered to any policy or legal framework and it does not contain any data protection principles or security practices.”

In addition to the privacy concerns posed by the presence of CCTV cameras, there’s also a raging concern that these cameras can also be used to target certain sections of society. In her latest working paper, “The Use of Facial Recognition Technology for Policing in Delhi An Empirical Study of Potential Discrimination,” Vipra analyzed how the uneven geographical distribution of both police stations and CCTV cameras in Delhi is likely to result in a surveillance bias against certain sections of society – in this case Muslims in the city.

“Some geographical areas tend to be over-policed and over-surveilled. In Delhi, these areas happen to be areas with a significant Muslim population. This means that Muslims will bear the brunt of the inaccuracy of facial recognition technology, especially given Delhi Police’s decided lack of friendliness towards Muslims recently,” Vipra added.

Taneja, the artist who leads “Women Walk at Midnight,” shares the privacy concerns. She also questioned the wisdom of celebrating the fact that Delhi is the most surveilled city in the world as an achievement. “I feel my privacy is violated by all this peering,” she said. “You want to create a safe city? Educate people. Light the city better. Make the cops gender sensitive. Make it easier for women to report crime.”

She also added that CCTV cameras don’t usually shift people’s attitudes; instead people come up with ideas of how to avoid the cameras.