India has a population that is equivalent to 17.7% of the world population with a high population density of 1202 people living in every square meter. With high crime rates, experts estimate that the country has only 144 police officers per 100,000 citizens. It is grossly off-mark from UN recommendation of at least 222 police officers per 100,000 citizens.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in India and the consequent decision of the government to enforce a lockdown exposed us to the preparedness levels of public surveillance systems in India. It also put additional pressure on the police administration to ensure implementation and observance of the issued COVID-19 lockdown guidelines.
The situation challenged the existing systems and practices at an unprecedented degree. It also warranted a well-connected network of public surveillance system which will not just track but alert the authorities of a possible build-up to a congregation or human crush. A surveillance system, which coupled with a public announcement mechanism, will be able to efficiently enforce lockdown in a region.
During such pandemics social distancing is one of the only known precautions. Once COVID-19 cases spurt in other countries, India proactively imposed an array of measures to mitigate the contagion. Thermal imaging technology, along with a strong network of surveillance cameras, were used at airports to spot symptomatic patients from the influx of international travellers to India. Additionally, a robust public surveillance network could have averted the possibility of unlawful public gathering by monitoring the situation in the early stages and taking necessary action based on the insights.
Our country has one of the lowest literacy rates of 74% when compared to China (96.4%) and Italy (98.85%), which were the hotspots of the virus earlier. Lack of education and access to credible information makes it even more difficult for citizens to adhere to the government issued guidelines. In such cases, not only announcing a lockdown but monitoring it also becomes critical. A reliable surveillance system can reduce the additional stress of the patrolling hours from the authorities.
Drones have proved effective for monitoring densely populated areas. A few cities have already started using drones to monitor gatherings, which are difficult to be accessed by police personnel. Such proactive measures are not just necessary but reassuring for people that the situation is under control.
There is no denying the fact that the government has been taking gradual steps to improve the public surveillance network across the country. The Governments Smart City and Safe City program has its focus on public surveillance and has seen some implementation in a phased manner.
Kerala, which had emerged stronger from the NIPAH virus scare, has used techniques like contact tracing of COVID-19 patients using ground-level human workers who go door-to-door tracing the movements of positive patients, besides using CCTV footages for clues. Other state governments are reportedly using technological tools such as apps to even geo-tag selfies to track and contain the contagion.
In the post-COVID period, Central government will have to work in tandem with the State machinery and local Administration to put in place a Strong pandemic control strategy and SOP in place. A public surveillance implementation should not only be a part of this strategy but must be implemented in an accelerated manner to ensure effectiveness.
This will be an opportune moment for the government to look at public surveillance with a new lens.
Of course, the upgradation of public surveillance infrastructure and the subsequent use of data must not bargain with the quintessential global privacy protocols. However, for the same, the country needs to fast-track the data privacy law that will also give the government right to access data for public welfare.
Lest we forget, the Government alone cannot be the sole problem solver. A PPP model can lead to the creation of a response system that is easy to adopt, implement and is timely updated to manage response systems. It will help the nation to #EmergeStronger from the pandemic and set a new benchmark for the world to follow.
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