Society

Women’s safety: beyond panic buttons and raksha bands

Ensuring safety: It’s not always a technology solution as more often safety lies in provision of basic efficient accountable infrastructure

Ensuring safety: It’s not always a technology solution as more often safety lies in provision of basic efficient accountable infrastructure   | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

While the idea of setting up quick response systems to deter crime is not a worthless goal, we can’t treat the issue of women’s safety as merely a problem for technology to solve

Ever since the horrific gang rape-murder of Nirbhaya in Delhi in December 2012, everyone — be it politicians or laypersons — seems interested in only one question: ‘What can keep women safe in public spaces?’

Just a few weeks ago, Maharashtra’s State cabinet cleared a ₹252 crore Safe City project for Mumbai, mooted by the Central government under the Nirbhaya Fund. While the Centre will provide 60% of the funding, that is, ₹151.2 crore, the State government’s share will be ₹100.8 crore. Similar Safe City projects meant to reduce crimes against women are in the process of being initiated in seven other Indian cities, including Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Lucknow, Chennai, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad — with a total of almost ₹2,920 crore earmarked for them.

That is no small number. But more importantly, how will that money guarantee safer cities? A big percentage of the Nirbhaya funds for these eight ‘safe’ cities — plans for which have been prepared in coordination with municipal corporations and police commissionerates in each city — are to be utilised on technology solutions for women’s safety. According to news reports, around ₹170 crore of the Mumbai Safe City budget has been earmarked for technological upgradation, ₹18 crore for GIS mapping of criminal hotspots, ₹12 crore for training, among other initiatives.

The Maharashtra government has expressed interest in upgrading and expanding its Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) surveillance system in Mumbai, by adding 500 more cameras to its existing network of 4,746 cameras. These are to be linked to the plan of developing victim and abuse tracking web applications. Reports indicate funds will be used for initiating SOS hotspots — as to what they are is still to be elaborated — and developing a ‘Track Me’ mobile application, which will be used to send alert messages to known persons in case of emergency. Panic buttons on mobile phones and key chains are also on the horizon for women and girls. Similar reports from Bengaluru indicate an interest among civic officials to invest Safe City Nirbhaya funds in ‘Raksha bands’ for women. The band — armed with motion sensors and a panic button — is to be worn on the wrist and will be accompanied by a mobile application, which in turn will be integrated with police control rooms.

Ensuring safety: It’s not always a technology solution as more often safety lies in provision of basic efficient accountable infrastructure

Ensuring safety: It’s not always a technology solution as more often safety lies in provision of basic efficient accountable infrastructure   | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

While the idea of setting up quick response systems to deter crime is not a worthless goal, we can’t treat the issue of women’s safety as merely a problem for technology to solve.

The same day that newspapers carried the story of the Maharashtra government approving funds for Mumbai’s Safe City project came the news that not one new bus was added in 2018 to Mumbai’s public bus system (the iconic BEST) — despite an annual depletion of 150-200 buses — on which more than 25 lakh commuters depend daily. Once known as the most efficient bus service in the country, the BEST fleet has shrunk from 4,200 buses to 3,337 in the last five years, with strong rumours that civic authorities are determined to privatise it.

What do buses have to do with safety you ask? That’s just it. Ask yourself what Nirbhaya was looking for the night she and her friend were picked up by a white private bus, in which we now know were six men who beat, tortured and gang-raped her, which eventually led to her death. She was looking for a safe way to get home. An efficient public bus system for which you can hold the State accountable may have kept her safe. Safety is not always a technology solution — though some tech infrastructure is not a bad idea. But more often than not, safety lies in provision of basic efficient accountable infrastructure — public transport, public toilets, lighting — and training of law enforcers and local communities to look out for women who need help. Let’s not run after tech solutions when more easier ones are right in front of us.

(Sameera Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist, researcher and co-author of Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets)

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 4:56:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/we-cant-treat-the-issue-of-womens-safety-as-merely-a-problem-for-technology-to-solve/article26247506.ece

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