While intentions are commendable, the rush towards surveillance and mobile apps ignores that most basic of safety issues women face.

Bluru allotted Rs 667 cr for womens safety Why the city needs a comprehensive planImage for representation only
Voices Safety Monday, August 13, 2018 - 15:48

Earlier this year, the Government of India announced the Safe City Project for the development of safe public spaces for women in 8 mega cities across India. Bengaluru is one of the cities selected for this initiative and received a Rs 667-crore cheque.

The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike’s proposal for Bengaluru lists several things, including women’s help desks in police stations, support centres, critical care response teams at leading hospitals, GIS-based crime mapping based on police reports and CCTV cameras. The same has been echoed by the Deputy Chief Minister, Dr G Parameshwara, as well.

While intentions are commendable, the rush towards surveillance and mobile apps ignores that most basic of safety issues – the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. To plan a safe city for women, a comprehensive and inclusive approach is required, one that spans data gathering, efficient monitoring and reporting, prompt action, emergency measures and building trust and perception of safety in women, and society as a whole.

As per the latest Bureau of Police Research and Development report of 2017, Karnataka has only 79% police vacancies filled, indicating a 21% recruitment failure. Compare this to Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra, where 94% posts are filled.

Karnataka has 145 police personnel for every 1 lakh general public, while Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have 184-186, almost 30% more in proportion. Worse, a mere 5.3% or about 4,895 of the 91,002 personnel are female, whereas over 12% of the police force is female in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.

Helplines are scattered, unstaffed or are impossible to remember or use. Various emergency numbers have been introduced over time, 181, 1091, etc., depending on the nature of harassment. While developed countries like the US have a single humber, 911, staffed by humans 24/7, regardless of nature of emergency – a fire in the home or a mugging or an accident, the most popular police helpline, 100, goes to an automated system where the caller has to press 1 or 2 or the right digit, etc., based on the nature of the service requested.

This seems like an astounding lack of empathy, almost bordering on insolence and negligence, but is also practically rooted in the same problem: An understaffed police force and an unimaginative governance that does not work hand-in-hand with citizens and civic society for assistance.

While mobile apps are touted by the government as panacea against crime, a significant chunk of women, garment workers, domestic help and public school teachers do not have smartphones or apps.

CCTVs are naively deemed the silver bullet; it is neither practical nor desirable to monitor every square inch of public space across Bengaluru. The footage would deluge the already lean police force and in fact distract from real policing. Worse, capturing everyone everywhere for the sake of apprehending a minuscule of criminals in society is offensive and a breach of privacy.  

As with all technological aids, CCTVs are most useful in public spaces when deployed in areas of high crime. Therein comes another weak link; where to place these cameras?

Based on GIS mapping from police records? Crimes, especially crimes against women are barely reported and police records capture but a fraction. Most developed countries have societal victimisation surveys that are systematically conducted to assess the true rate and locations of crime in society. Bengaluru, in fact India, has no such thing. Proper GIS mapping for crime prevention must come from anonymously sourced data from women and bystanders, making it simple to place a record of the incident. It cannot be predicated on police records, physical presence in a police station, or even identity.

Beyond these measures, police investigations are glacially slow, breeding little confidence in women. The Supreme Court directed not only fast-track courts, but also fast-track police investigations for rapes, after the Nirbhaya horror, but this has thus far received no traction in Karnataka.

The general public, and women in particular, are not consulted in planning, safety measures. Women are best positioned to know and understand where, what and how these crimes happen, why they do not get reported and why their faith in the governance safety net is all but absent.

General public, and women in particular, are not consulted in planning safety measures. Women are best positioned to know and understand where, what and how these crimes happen, why they do not get reported and why their faith in the governance safety net is all but absent.

Safety is a last-mile problem so to speak. The recipe for addressing this must be comprehensive:

1. Commission societal data on crimes with victimisation surveys, sourced anonymously. This must accurately capture the nature, geography, volume and gravity of crimes against women, and should dictate where CCTVs, street lights, Hoysala vans, police posse, etc., are deployed. Crime geographies should not be derived from police and NCRB data due to gross underreporting and non-reporting of harassment.

2. Devise inclusive safety measures and urban designs with consultation of women from all walks of life; domestic workers and daily wage earners, teachers and bankers, students and paying guests, IT professionals and homemakers. Those that do and don't have access to latest technologies and those that use the city buses, Metro, taxis and streets, as well as private vehicles. This will derive solutions usable and benefitting the spectrum of women in Bengaluru, including public transport, public spaces and public sanitation, not just mobile apps users and car owners.

3. Fill police vacancies with immediacy. Adequately staff and arm law enforcement, ensure at least 20% female police and fast tracking of investigations of aggravated crimes against women. Ensure specific training on a zero tolerance approach to reiterate the priority. This will allow for crime footage from CCTVs to be monitored and acted upon with alacrity, more effective targeting of crime hotspots, better prevention and importantly handling of crimes against women with urgency and sensitivity. Ideally, this should also be matched by fast track courts.

4. Ensure functioning and efficient emergency helplines and panic buttons, staffed with humans speaking multiple languages, not automated voice response systems. And prompt onsite response.

5. Set up counselling, rehabilitation and critical care centres with clear process, medical and legal aid attached. Coupled with prompt emergency response systems and increased presence of female police personnel, such centres will help alleviate cultural bias against reporting and seeking assistance, hence leading to more reporting and fighting of crime.

State laws and state machinery must display a zero tolerance towards crimes against women and an end-to-end, not piecemeal, approach if Safe City is to go beyond platitudes.

Views expressed are author's own.

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