India: Surveillance Needed to Help Protect Women

On 16th December 2012 the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a private bus in New Delhi led to mass protests across India and placed a new spotlight on the plight of women across the country. Kathryn Cave speaks to individuals on the ground about how tech can help regulate the symptoms, if not tackle the cause.

Sexual violence against women in India is hitting the international headlines. Over the last month alone, the attack on a Danish tourist has been high on the global news agenda, whilst reports that in a village 120 miles outside Calcutta, a 20-year-old was raped in public by a group of tribal elders, resulted in a huge outcry around the world.  Yet lack of safety for women in India is hardly a new phenomenon.

The country is large, diverse, plagued by poverty and riven with social divide. The historic sexual gulf may be well documented, but as Sonia Faleiro, author of ‘Beautiful Thing’, an insight into the dance bars of Bombay, explained to the guardian, harassment and violence is still part of everyday life for many women. “As a teenager growing up in Delhi I was regularly sexually harassed. I never made a complaint, though, because I never thought this harassment was out of the ordinary.”

“[Now] rape has entered everyday conversation, and not just in middle class homes,” Faleiro told IDG Connect. “I can easily talk to poor, rural women that I interview in the course of my work and discuss the December gang rape, for example. They have all heard of it and have strong opinions on what punishment the rapists should have received. (Immediate death, is one that I recall). [But] there hasn't been a decrease in incidents of rape, as much as an increase in the number of reported rapes.”

But what can be done to tackle the problem? Fundamental change will obviously need to be social explains Faleiro: “We need every complaint to be registered, every report to be investigated, we need the public to support victims of rape, we need a general consensus on the fact that sexual assault is rampant, cutting across classes, and that it is making India untenable for, in particular, young Indian women.” Yet there is also a need to increase CCTV and surveillance, especially on public transport, to ensure these crimes are recorded.

Ashok Patnaik, Editor at the Oslo Times in India stresses that “both the police and new dispensation in Delhi are already taking corrective measures [following high profile events], but definitely a lot more needs to be done as far as the protection of women and tourists are concerned.”  

Mr Sudhindra Holla, Country Manager for Axis Communications, a company that offers video surveillance and access control solutions, explains:  “The government is making a lot of investments into women’s safety, especially after the appalling instances of last year and the year before. We have seen a lot of projects for women’s safety, local initiatives for women’s safety, especially on the buses or in the hostels.”

Vikas Puthran, Vice-President-Alliances and Operations at GiveIndia agrees that the Indian “administration has stepped up electronic surveillance. For example at least in the metro cities there are CCTV in public transport like buses, trains, metros. In Mumbai it is [now] mandatory for all auto rickshaws to have GPS tracking devices which can be used by law enforcement in cases of crime. Cities themselves have been put under video surveillance. [And in] Mumbai, law enforcement agencies have sent out circulars to all multi dwelling-housing societies to install CCTV.”

Yet many people still believe this is not enough.  Patnaik quantifies: “Just 500 out of 5,500 buses in Delhi are fitted with CCTV cameras. The government should make it a thumb rule for bus operators to toe the line or their licenses will be cancelled for good.” Whilst Brinda S. Narayan, author of Bangalore Calling adds “several private companies in India have strengthened their security systems to transport women to offices and so on. The public sector [on the other hand] is quick to announce measures, but slower to implement.”

Faleiro feels more surveillance is vital for women’s safety: “We need cameras on buses, bus stops, parking lots, malls, honestly I would say, any and all, public places that women use.” Holla also feels this technology is especially necessary in India as many other processes are not in place. “Look at the safety of the citizen,” he says, “we are a big country. We have so many states and so many cities. It is virtually impossible for everything to come under the common governance.”

“I don’t see objections from people as to why a camera is here or here,” Holla adds. “People use them to gather intelligence as and when [criminal] incidences happen and on a practical basis for providing some kind of [follow up] action [if a criminal incident has taken place]. The police, friends, commercial establishment, banks, apartments are all encouraging people to put CTTV in because [otherwise] when incidents happen there is no proof whatsoever.”

Puthran feels that in addition to an increased understanding of the need for surveillance across the country, “the range of products available and the service providers have also increased and prices of these services have come down to affordable levels. Considering the increased awareness of personal safety and dangers of urban crimes electronic surveillance has really caught on and have become [standard equipment] which every house, establishment or enterprise needs to have it.”

Yet surveillance is not the only technological advance emerging to safeguard women. A range of bespoke apps are also beginning to appear on the market. These help give women some control of their own, yet like most personal safeguards will tend to be more relevant to middle class women. The Times of India ran a story at the end of last year about a panic button app which the government plans to roll out. The paper stated that from once the app is released models of basic phones will come with the software already installed.

Patnaik also drew our attention to “a new GPS connectivity device [that] will be in place to track vehicles very soon. The app, tentatively called ‘Tell Tale’, can be downloaded to any smartphone. [And] the best thing is it can be used without turning on the phone’s GPS, it will get connected to the GPS network on the vehicle whether it’s an auto [rickshaw] or a bus.” However he is also sceptical: “the larger question is can such panic button devices be the lasting solution in a large country like India.

Faleiro voices similar misgivings: “I'm very particular about using an app called ‘Friend Finder’ that my husband is connected to, so he, at least, has a close approximate to my location no matter which village in India I am in.”  Yet the more sophisticated aspects of technology tend to be available only to a fairly small demograph of middle class women “to protect themselves or create a case against someone who is stalking or has assaulted them.”

“Are rural women or women in small towns Indian able to use technology to stay safe?” she concludes, “No.”


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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