There is widespread consensus in India that the police in India have emerged as one of the biggest threats to people’s safety and a major stumbling block in establishing the rule of law. It is assumed that the problem lies in the antiquated Police Act enshrined by our colonial masters way back in 1861 which was meant as an instrument of tyranny over the local populace because if provides untrammeled power to the cops without much accountability to citizens.
Police Commissioner Rakesh Asthaana
All those interested in seeing police become an efficient instrument of law and order don’t need to wait haplessly till that happens. IPS officer Rakesh Asthaana, the current Commissioner of Police in Surat, has shown how major transformations can be brought about fairly swiftly in approach and functioning of the police within the present system as well.
Before being posted as Police Commissioner of Surat, the most important commercial hub in Gujarat, and premier centre of diamond trade in India, Asthaana earned recognition by his meticulous investigation of the Godhra train massacre of February 27, 2002 and before that the Fodder Scam in Bihar. It is widely believed in Gujarat that swift and honest investigation into the train massacre played a significant role in helping a communally charged and intensely divided town like Godhra to come back to peaceful co-existence between Hindus and Muslims.
This was accompanied by swift trials which led to salutary quick punishment for the guilty. Because the investigation was thorough most of those arrested as accused got sentenced.n Asthaana says: “If you put fear in the mind of criminal elements of a community which rarely exceed 2 to 5 percent, the rest are easy to control.” This has been his motto in each of his postings.
Asthaana was posted as Police Commissioner (PC) of Surat in 2011. This was soon after the terrorist bomb blasts in Mumbai’s famed jewelry market – Zaveri Bazar. Like Zaveri Bazar, the old Surat City is also a major hub of diamond polishing and jewelry making with thousands of crores of products exchanging hands every day. Most of the diamond cutting units are located in the inner city with narrow lanes. Therefore, the city was very vulnerable to terror attacks. It is also a major textile centre, likewise located in the heart of the old city.
When Asthaana was posted as PC Surat, Narendra Modi told him you have to make this premier commercial centre of Gujarat a safe city. Modi gave him two tips to define his job profile –
- Surat is going to be the fastest growing city in Gujarat. Therefore, your plans to make it a safe city should be based on realistic calculations of its growth potential in decades to come.
- Make optimum use of technology to bring about efficient, accountable policing.
Asthaana says, thereafter he was left alone to do his job.
So one of the first things Asthaana set out to do was to set up a Police Control Room with cutting edge technology to monitor 24x7 a whole string of CCTV cameras installed in key locations of the city. In many parts of India, including the capital city, CCTV cameras have been installed but serve little purpose because they are not backed up by the required monitoring systems. So no one even notices when they break down or fall into disuse out of sheer neglect. Often the local hoodlums or the police themselves damage them to render them dysfunctional.
But Surat’s high resolution CCTV cameras are supported by state of the art round the clock monitoring mechanisms. This system is believed to be even better than that of New York. They work not only for monitoring traffic and issuing electronic challans to those who violate traffic laws but also for catching both small and big criminals. They are also effective in monitoring police response to various incidents. For example, I saw examples of how in cases of hit and run accidents, the Control Room immediately flashed the number of the car that had hit a motorcyclist from behind to all the traffic policemen on duty. Therefore, within minutes the car was waylaid by the police. But the cameras also showed how the policemen near the site responded to the accident. Since these cameras can zoom to the minutest details, they also help the police catch pick-pockets, purse snatchers or those who steal vehicles or valuables kept in vehicles. They have also helped solve several murder cases.
The system is now gearing up to introduce face detection so that once the face is fed into the data system, no matter where the criminal shows up in the city, the monitoring system will issue a warning signal.
There is no denying that this system has the potential of misuse if the monitoring exercise is extended to surveillance of political opponents, instead of criminals. It also raises serious privacy issues. But the scores of people I talked to in Surat did not complain because the sense of security on account of better policing without any evidence of intrusive snooping on citizens’ lives thus far made them unconcerned about the possibility of abuse in future. It is noteworthy that under Narendra Modi, the level of confidence in Government was relatively much higher in Gujarat than in most other states of India. In fact, the standard response I got with regard to privacy concerns was: “This system monitors you only as long as you are in public spaces. How can anyone look for privacy in public spaces? The police are not setting up cameras in our homes or even our private commercial establishments. The cameras are only meant to catch images on roads and in public utilities like railway stations, bus terminals etc.” However, citizens need to remain vigilant about the potential of misuse with this technology which has for the moment proved a major boon in diverse areas.
For instance, this system is also capable of working well during natural calamities such as earthquake or floods – providing detailed inputs to the authorities as to the extent of damage and where exactly what kind of help is needed. Likewise, in case of terror attacks, it can help identify the likely culprits in real time because the monitoring is minute to minute 24x7.