Women have generally preferred the presence of personnel who are sensitive and empowered to act.
The first set of closed-circuit television (CCTV) system has been installed inside a women’s compartment of a local train in Mumbai. This is in keeping with the Union Railway Minister’s announcement in his 2015 Budget speech stating that for “… the safety of our women passengers, surveillance cameras will be provided on a pilot basis in selected mainline coaches and ladies’ compartments of suburban coaches without compromising on privacy”.
The catchwords here are “safety” and “security” — universally considered a human right. It goes without saying that safe transportation is vital to meet our daily needs and reach future destinations as well. However, the gendered nature of the public/private divide has resulted in public transit system being considered a “masculine space” and women as an intruder. This tends to normalise macho behaviour and women are expected to fit in and cope with such “small” inconveniences as harassment.
Not surprisingly, it is in public transport that women face the greatest levels of violence and insecurity. Therefore, steps to make a lady commuter feel less insecure are welcome. Having said that, we need to critically examine if CCTV will address safety issues.
CCTVs have a ubiquitous presence in transport systems across the world. It is generally argued that CCTVs help deter crime, identify criminals and punish them. The efficiency of surveillance technology is premised on the logic that it can operate 24×7 without a break. It is this that has led political parties of all hues to believe that CCTV is the panacea for all law and order issues. So much so that politicians have started using installation of surveillance cameras as an election sop.
The faith governments across the world have on surveillance technique to promote safety is touching. What is masked in all this is that CCTVs are expensive and involve huge running and maintenance cost. Hence, a careful cost-benefit assessment is called for.
To begin with, cameras are only as intelligent or efficient as those operating them. It is they who make sense of what they see. The underlying assumption of CCTV technology is its psychological effect on the errant person who might or might not be aware that he/she is observed.
If that is the case, it is bound to have an impact on those who know for sure they are observed. When watched by the authorities, people tend to be self-conscious and less freewheeling. The freedom to dress the way they wish or sit in whatever posture, or say anything might be compromised.
Ladies compartments are among the few free public spaces available to women. It would be tragic if they were to self-censor. Similarly, given the existing mind set there is a possibility of surveillance being used to ask probing questions or reveal data on who was out in train with whom late in the night.
There is no guarantee that surveillance will not be used to stalk a lady. In these circumstances, surveillance can just as easily be the source of danger.
Another issue of concern is the inevitable “male gaze” in the scheme of things. CCTV contributes to accentuating gender imbalances, as most of those surveilled are women, while those behind the cameras are men. Travelling for long hours and during the night with cameras keeping a watch is disconcerting.
Experts studying how the camera systems in Britain are operated found that one in 10 women were targeted entirely for voyeuristic reasons. Forty per cent of people were targeted for “no obvious reason”, mainly “on the basis of belonging to a particular or sub-cultural group”.
Lest we think such things won’t happen in India, let us refresh our memory to what happened in Delhi. CCTV footage of a couple in a Delhi Metro was leaked as a pornography clip on the Internet. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation officials blamed the Central Industrial Security Force and the latter predictably deflected the blame. No matter who is accountable, it merely highlights how data can be misused. What is worse, instead of being outraged the debate shifted to questioning the moral standards of the couple getting intimate in the empty train. As usual, it was the woman who bore the brunt.
Yes, CCTVs can help identify perpetrators but one has to be very cautious on this front. US government experts on security technology have pointed out that monitoring video screens is both “boring” and “mesmerizing”.
As a rule, the attention of most individuals degenerate to well below acceptable levels after 20 minutes of viewing the monitor screens. Hence the impression that they are being watched can generate a sense of false security among passengers.
Further, Sue Bolton while explaining why CCTVs do not promote safety highlighted that in “…the case of the Boston bombings, many people were wrongly identified as the perpetrator of that crime, with serious consequences for their lives and reputations.” Further, UK metropolitan police’s data reveals that for every 1,000 cameras in their jurisdiction one crime is solved each year. The reasons for this dismal rate is that cameras are often turned off or not working or not pointing in the right direction. Additionally, the quality of footage is such that courts cannot use it. So, the narrative of the success of CCTV is often based on anecdotal cherry picking.
CCTV can only deter certain types of crime. For instance, those people affected by drugs and alcohol will not be deterred from being in a camera-monitored space. Further, women across the world have pointed out that the feeling of being watched is no source of comfort when they are assaulted or groped or intimidated. What they need is the presence of people who can intervene immediately to prevent the criminal act. Not surprisingly, a number of studies have highlighted that it is not women but men who have favoured the use of CCTV. Women have generally preferred the presence of personnel who are sensitive and empowered to act.
Since the installation of CCTVs are going to be staggered, we need to be concerned about the “displacement effect”; antisocial elements can move to areas outside the purview of the cameras. In Mumbai, this could mean targeting ladies compartments not fitted with CCTV.
All this does not mean CCTV should be rejected outright since it can promote public safety owing to what is called “natural surveillance”. It implies that people less fearful of crime because of the existence of cameras increase the usage of the spaces avoided in the past. This, in turn, could make the place comparatively safe.
Yet, as noted by the Hyderabad Urban Lab, which specialises in research on urbanisation, in their recommendations to the Committee on Women’s Safety in Telangana, “…surveillance technology (is) primarily a tool for investigation, its deterrent effect varies by context and length of use.… Whenever new technologies are put in place they create a period of uncertainty for offenders. This fed by publicity that crime is going to become more risky. However, over time this uncertainty fades and new crime skills are developed. In short, investment in new surveillance technologies is at best a short term deterrent. In the long term, only an investment in social institutions can guarantee safety for women”.
These cameras should not be perceived to be this magic bullet that will help stop crime. A more holistic approach is needed.
Some policy initiatives that the government should consider are:
- Framing gender-sensitive pre-requirements for transit environments. Way back in the 1970s, the concept of the neutral commuter was rejected. It is imperative that more women stakeholders are involved in the policy-making process.
- Train and employ women to monitor CCTV recordings.
- Appoint adequately staffed control rooms because whenever there is an overload of tasks, routine monitoring will be replaced by other priorities and fatigue can set in when work is monotonous.
- Frame protocols to monitor the behaviour of the watchers must be put in place to ensure that the mechanisms are not misused. Those in charge of public CCTV systems should be clearly identified and made accountable.
- Supplement CCTV with more security personnel in the trains and stations. Also establish quick response teams in cases of emergency at every station
- Ensure coordination between rail operator, the station, security staff and police agencies must be ensured.
- Provide for easy registration of First Information Report in all railway stations must be ensured.
- Set up follow-up mechanisms that will ensure the cases are resolved within a time-framework. Also establish fast track courts like in cases of ticketless travelling.
- Spruce up the criminal justice system so that the conviction rates go up and justice is seen to be done.
- Conduct regular gender-sensitisation programmes for the staff.
These will go a long way in creating a secure environment where CCTVs will outlive its need.
This article has been republished from Newslaundry.com.