December 11, 2023
📰 FEATURE STORY
Is Uttar Pradesh’s Safe City project draconian?
Every government, be it local, state, or at the centre, often speaks about public safety, particularly the safety of women in public spaces. When the much-hyped Smart Cities mission was launched, one of its tenets was to make cities and public spaces safe for women. They were called Safe City Projects. Several cities and states have their own versions.
Uttar Pradesh is the most recent state to announce its ambitious Safe City project with phase 1. At the heart of it is to ensure there’s widespread surveillance of municipalities with thousands of CCTV cameras. The government sees this as the best approach to keep watch. However, is mass surveillance of this kind something people want or need? Would this help improve women’s safety at all?
With rapid urbanisation comes a plethora of issues to solve for governments and policymakers. While they offer new opportunities to build homes and businesses, people need to be safe and secure in their surroundings. Smart Cities can sometimes sound like a buzzword. In some cases, it’s infusing technology into everyday tasks in public spheres. In others, it’s overhauling changes in how people interact and engage with public spaces.
Cities are inherently economic, social, and political spaces. It should be seen as a living thing with constant dialogue with its inhabitants. For women, there’s a constant fear of violence and threats that can infringe on their rights to move, study, work, and leisure.
Post the Nirbhaya incident in 2012, there have been several initiatives to address this issue, with thousands of crores invested. Everything from increased police presence and better lighting in public spaces to emergency apps. The government even constituted the Nirbhaya Fund in 2013 with an initial allocation of ₹100 crore.
In 2015, the Smart Cities Mission was launched with a budget of ₹1.91 lakh crore to develop cities with infrastructure to ensure the safety and security of citizens, particularly women. Over the years, crimes against women increased. In 2021, for example, over 4.2 lakh crimes against women were reported, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
Owing to that increase, the Centre allocated nearly ₹3,000 crore under the Safe City Project to deploy CCTV cameras and drones across eight cities to help increase safety for women in public spaces.
Most recently, Uttar Pradesh launched the first phase of its Safe City project across 17 municipal corporations and 2,500 schools. It involves installing over 26,000 CCTV cameras in different schools to cover classrooms, corridors, and entry and exit gates. In 2021, to align with the Smart City mission, the state police planned to install smart cameras in public spaces to capture images of women in distress.
In July, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said Uttar Pradesh will be the first in the country to have 18 ‘safe cities’. While that’s necessary, is the government’s approach the right way?
VIEW: Can’t compromise on safety
What the Uttar Pradesh Safe City project does, while concentrating on women’s safety, is extend to the safety of children, persons with disabilities, and the elderly. The project has the perfect blend of integrating technology to keep urban public spaces safe. Not only will there be CCTV cameras at hotspots, but the Safe City App, developed by the Urban Development Department, will also be included in the Smart City App.
The state government seems to be looking at a holistic approach to its Safe City project. In addition to CCTV cameras, the government will also build 3,000 pink booths in important cities. This includes religious places like Varanasi, Ayodhya, and Mirzapur, which get high footfall. The pink booths will have CCTV cameras, first-aid kits, panic buttons and other facilities.
The government is determined to monitor many of the state’s private coaching institutions to avoid miscreants and troublemakers from gathering there. To ensure the safety of female students, these institutions have been given guidelines prohibiting late evening classes. The government wants Uttar Pradesh to be the first Indian state with 18 Safe Cities.
COUNTERVIEW: Mass surveillance not safety
While the underlying intentions of the state’s Safe City project are right, the approach isn’t. The project, while aiming to focus on and increase women’s safety, needs to be seen in the context of its potential consequences – privacy, data usage, and social justice. While not all areas will be covered under CCTV surveillance, categorising some spaces as unsafe or dangerous could exacerbate already marginalised communities and neighbourhoods. It’s especially concerning since the Yogi government propagates the divisive rhetoric of “love jihad”.
What needs to happen is to get under the hood, so to speak, of the localities to find out their vulnerabilities. A trend towards data-driven governance and mass surveillance raises troubling questions on privacy and personal freedoms. While it’s become quite common for us to give our data away, there’s minimal research on how ‘datafication’ helps citizens compared to companies’ and states’ powers and capabilities to use them.
If the government were serious about women’s safety, they wouldn’t make it difficult for them to get an education. Banning evening classes affects women who have no other option. Restricting their movements is discriminatory and isn’t going to stop crimes. Rather than focusing on safety, they’ve abdicated that responsibility and resorted to prohibiting women from studying beyond a certain time. What would be a better option is to ensure better transport facilities to these coaching institutes.
- Women’s safety in smart cities – Livemint
- No city is smart if its women are unsafe – Hindustan Times
- Rising crimes against Indian women in five charts – BBC
- Rethinking the Challenge of Women’s Safety in India’s Cities – ORF
- Feminist Perspectives on Space, Safety and Surveillance: Improving a Woman’s Right to the City – The Wire
- UP govt to implement Safe City project with 12 major departments – The Statesman
- UP Safe City project: Controlling women is not safety – Indian Express
- ‘Wrong at many levels’: UP ban on late-evening coaching for women decried by social media users – Scroll
- Students stumble over ban on women’s evening classes in UP’s GTB Nagar – Maktoob Media
What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) The Uttar Pradesh Safe City Project isn’t draconian.
b) The Uttar Pradesh Safe City Project is draconian.
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