February 15, 2024

Delhi's Surveillance Revolution: How the City's CCTV Project Redefines Safety, but Raises Concerns Over the Right to the City

Rituraj Pegu

In this blog post, our Fellow 2023 Rituraj Pegu delves into the dynamic urban landscape of Delhi.

New Delhi, India

Ravi Sharma for Unsplash

In the dynamic urban landscape of Delhi, a transformative initiative takes shape through the Delhi City Surveillance CCTV project, led by the Public Works Department (PWD) under the aegis of the Government of National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi. This ambitious undertaking seeks to revolutionize the landscape of public safety, with a specific focus on enhancing security for the city's inhabitants, particularly women. The pervasive implementation of surveillance infrastructure, however, begets a nuanced inquiry into the potential encroachment upon the theoretical framework of the "Right to the City." Rooted in urban sociology, this concept posits the fundamental entitlement of citizens to actively shape and utilize their urban environment. As Delhi becomes one of the most extensively surveilled cities in the world, a critical discourse emerges, contemplating the delicate equilibrium between public safety and safeguarding the intrinsic rights of its inhabitants to participate in the co-creation of their urban environment. This juxtaposition prompts a contemplation of the ethical, legal, and social dimensions inherent in the deployment of surveillance technologies within the urban fabric.

The Dilemma of Decentralization: Balancing Security and Privacy

A notable aspect of the project lies in actively engaging communities to ensure their safety, with Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) and Market Associations playing crucial roles in the monitoring process. This not only boosts the surveillance's effectiveness but also nurtures a shared responsibility among residents, fostering collaboration with the police and Public Works Department (PWD) for a unique synergy in upholding public safety.

However, the decentralization approach, while empowering communities, introduces concerns about potential surveillance abuse. The system's capabilities, including automated health checks and remote monitoring by various entities, create a delicate equilibrium between security and individual privacy. As the government gains unprecedented access to citizens' daily lives, questions about the extent of surveillance and the safeguards in place become pivotal.

Surveillance through the lens of the Right to the City

Coined by Henri Lefebvre, the "Right to the City" denotes the collective entitlement of citizens to actively participate in the shaping, designing, and utilization of their urban environment, affording them the authority to effect transformations in accordance with community needs and aspirations. In the context of Delhi's surveillance revolution, it becomes imperative to critically examine the alignment of this initiative with the foundational tenets of the Right to the City. This exploration aims to assess the impact on the agency of the citizens, seeking to discern whether the surveillance measures serve to empower or curtail their participatory role in the broader context of urban governance. The extensive surveillance measures raise concerns about the infringement on citizens' privacy, freedom of movement, and the right to dissent. It is imperative to assess whether the deployment of surveillance technologies might inadvertently curtail individual freedoms and hinder the citizens' ability to engage in their urban environment without unwarranted scrutiny, thereby highlighting the delicate balance required to prevent the violation of fundamental rights.

Navigating Safety, Security and Civic Rights

It is imperative to ensure that this heightened security does not come at the cost of compromising citizens' fundamental rights. The installation has been justified by the pressing need for public safety, particularly in addressing the disturbingly high rates of violent crimes against women and children. However, a critical question arises: does such extensive surveillance genuinely result in a reduction in crime, making Delhi safer, especially for women? A closer examination of data released by the Delhi Police on crimes against women from 2019 to 2021 reveals a concerning trend. As per the most recent report from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Delhi witnessed a substantial increase in crimes against women in 2021, registering 13,892 cases. This marks a notable surge of over 40% compared to the 2020 figure of 9,782. Despite the increased surveillance efforts, crimes against women have witnessed a significant surge in recent years. These not only raise doubts about the effectiveness of the surveillance strategy but also the utilization of public funds. This underscores the need for a thoughtful reassessment of the equilibrium between security measures and the safeguarding of citizens' rights in the city.

Privacy Concerns in the Surveillance Age

The proliferation of constant surveillance prompts a critical examination of the delicate balance between public safety and individual liberties. Experts emphasize the urgent need for robust legal frameworks and transparent policies to safeguard citizens' privacy rights, especially given the lack of regulations surrounding the collection and storage of data through CCTVs. Facial recognition, when integrated with these systems, poses a significant threat to privacy, raising fears of disproportionate impacts on certain communities. Notably, the use of facial recognition technology during the investigation of the 2020 North East Delhi riots has sparked controversy, with concerns over potential biases and impacts on Muslim populations. Furthermore, as the Delhi government extends the reach of CCTV cameras in schools, allowing live-stream access to parents, experts caution against such surveillance due to insufficient safeguards and potential privacy violations, particularly concerning minors. Critics argue that comprehensive data protection laws are essential to secure the footage of schoolchildren and address the evolving landscape of surveillance. Without these protective measures, the surveillance network risks transforming into a tool of control rather than serving its intended purpose of collective security.

Conclusion: Towards an Inclusive and Secure Delhi

In conclusion, Delhi's Surveillance Revolution marks a significant change in how the city manages public safety, reshaping its perspective on urban security. Yet, as this shift unfolds, it prompts a critical examination of its impact on the Right to the City. While embracing technological advancements, it is crucial for the city to adhere to principles of inclusivity, transparency, and individual rights. Striking this delicate balance presents Delhi with an opportunity to set an example for urban surveillance, where both security and citizen empowerment are prioritized. The challenge at hand involves formulating policies that protect privacy while harnessing surveillance's potential for the community's greater good.