A few years ago, Ananya Pattnaik moved from her hometown Cuttack to India’s capital New Delhi to pursue a bachelor’s degree. She immediately found that CCTV surveillance was everywhere: in accommodation facilities for female students and working women, public universities, and public spaces. The pervasive idea was that women needed to be watched and protected in order for them to be safe.

Analysis by UK-based Comparitech found Delhi to be the most surveilled city in the world in 2021, with 1826 cameras per square mile. Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, said it helped improve security, especially for women, and has promised to up this number in the coming years. This will be achieved, at least partly, through the Safe City project which was launched in eight cities, including Delhi, in 2018 and included several tech measures as “minimum desirable components” to ensure the safety of women in public spaces. The central government allocated over 29 billion Indian rupees to the project from the Nirbhaya Fund which was set up in 2013 following the brutal rape and assault of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi to encourage projects for women’s safety and security. In 2021, an Oxfam report concluded that the Nirbhaya Fund was being mainly allocated to services that don’t specifically help women.

The Delhi Police is using the funds to add more cameras, integrate all the existing cameras in the city into a central system, and build a control centre "with the latest video analytics using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and predictive policing techniques". Other major cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, and Lucknow are using the funds similarly: to build or expand tech surveillance, including the use of drones for policing. The Nirbhaya Fund is being used to install facial recognition tech as part of other projects as well, like the one that covers 983 railway stations across the country, again, for "ensuring better safety for women”.

Experts say that this push for increased surveillance to address violence against women is a protectionist approach that may produce evidence of crime but does not help prevent it.

“Tech surveillance is a typical response to this idea that the outside world is really dangerous. It doesn’t quite get to the root of gendered violence inside and outside the home,” said Sneha Annavarapu, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.

While Indian women do face widespread harassment in public spaces, the highest percentage of crimes against women is registered under “cruelty by husband and his relatives”. A number of studies have shown that most cases of violence against women, especially sexual assaults, go unreported, in part because women believe there is little gain in going to the police, as evidenced by India’s low conviction rates. In 2019, more than a third of the 12,000 police personnel interviewed for a study were of the opinion that gender-based violence complaints are false and motivated.

Indian women’s agency on their own lives are already curtailed socially and culturally in the name of safety. Most women do not have sole control in choosing their husbands, can’t freely step out of their homes for work or pleasure, and have limited access to the internet and mobile phones. “CCTV cameras add an extra layer of surveillance to the one that women are already trying to escape, which is their family,” said Annavarapu. Many women in India find freedom in anonymous public spaces outside their homes, and without safeguards, tech surveillance risks how women experience this freedom, she added.

Pattnaik believed that this approach “gives the police and the state the same kind of power that the family already has. The same kind of logic of surveillance that exists within the family – that you have to preserve the honour of the family, the caste, the community – is transferred to the state. So, we are essentially trading our privacy for this kind of safety.”

This isn’t a widely held discussion in India yet, experts say, and Pattnaik understood why: in the absence of systemic change, CCTV cameras provided some form of assurance to many women that she knew. She, however, felt wary and worried about the inclination to address crimes against women simply through evidence, as tech surveillance did. “Despite all the evidence, we know that the legal process is messy and we have no idea how the evidence will be interpreted.”

India does not have any laws around the kind of wide-spread surveillance that exists in the country. (The government released the latest draft of its data protection bill in November but experts highlight that it includes exemptions which “facilitate state surveillance” over citizens’ right to privacy). This leaves a lot of unanswered questions about who has access to the data, and how the data is stored, interpreted, and used. In 2013, for instance, over 250 clips of couples captured on CCTV cameras in Delhi metro stations were found to be edited and uploaded on porn sites. In the southern state of Telengana, following the celebrated extra-judicial killing of four people accused in a high-profile case of rape and murder in 2019, a commission noted that the police had selectively collected and submitted CCTV footage, despite the presence of cameras, so as to deliberately suppress the truth.

There is no study or data to show that increasing the number of CCTVs over the years have correlated with a corresponding decrease in crimes against women in India or made women feel safer, noted Anushka Jain, Policy Counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation. (India has seen a consistent rise in crimes against women in the last eight years, except for 2020 when life and data collection were both impacted due to lockdown). Instead, CCTVs and facial recognition tools are now being used widely to screen thousands of peaceful protestors and make arrests following communal riots in Delhi as well as to carry out arbitrary checks in Hyderabad. Marginalised communities that have been historically discriminated against are most likely to be impacted by this kind of mass surveillance, Jain said. “Instead of actually increasing the safety or security of women, these are now being used to violate the fundamental rights of each and every citizen.”

This surveillance-led idea of safety, experts believe, merely serves as a distraction from the real concerns. It also fails to take a rights-based approach. “The issue is that there is no radical imagination in urban planning,” says Annavarapu, “but one that tries to ‘fix’ a deeply exclusionary city with tech surveillance.”

“Safety alone is a very myopic lens to understand how women access and navigate the city. It is an important and determining factor as to why women are not accessing public spaces, but not the only one,” said Ashali Bhandari, senior urban planner at Transitions Research.

“In general, evidence shows that women feel more comfortable being in a public space when there are other women around”, Bhandari added, “so the focus needs to be on inclusion.” Most Indian cities, she said, have not been designed to cater to the needs of women. According to her, adding services and provisions like sidewalks, parks, well-lit roads, toilets, and resting spaces can make the city accessible for all women, including women who need to occupy the streets a lot more because of their work, like vendors and sanitation workers.

Tech can’t be the solution, but it can be used as a tool to ensure this, experts say. Safetipin, an Indian social organisation, for instance, uses its app by the same name to collect visual and user generated data – like lighting, availability of public transport, and presence of women and children nearby – across cities. They analyse this information to make specific recommendations to government officials and city planners to help make it easier and safer for women to navigate public spaces. In Delhi, the government used their data to fix or install streetlights in over 5,000 dark spots, improve last-mile connectivity around metro stations, and revise police patrolling routes.

The irony, said Annavarapu, is that “state surveillance is all about data” but decision-makers have seldom made the effort to gather inputs from women and local communities about how they perceive safety and what might make them feel safe in urban spaces. And that, experts emphasise, needs to change. 

Photo credit: Mansi Thapliya / Reuters