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.
While it is essential to replace the antiquated Indian Police Act of 1861 vintage, it must be replaced by legislation more suited for a free India of the 21st Century.
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 24×7 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 images caught at up to 1 km distance are very sharp and clear. They can catch the minutest activities on the road, be it a woman counting money on the roadside or a thief stealing a laptop from the backseat of a car at a red light signal. Likewise, in case of road accident victims, the Control Room can ensure that quick medical help in the form of an ambulance reaches the spot swiftly.
But most important of all the Control Room can monitor real time whether or not the cops on duty acted with alacrity to an emergency situation or they just stood and watched. This brings a high level of accountability of those policemen on the ground.
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 24×7.
The first phase, which started in 2011, involved installation of 104 CCTV cameras backed by a Control Room which has been crafted to allow scope for future expansion. Asthaana took only 90 days to operationalize it. It cost no more than Rs 10.51 crores. All this technology was purchased through a transparent World Bank approved tender process. Today 650 cameras are already in place and the future plan involves covering every nook and corner of the city with 5000 cameras, including the outlying coastal areas. This means at the press of a button, the Control Room can watch any untoward incident as it is unfolding – thus making it easy for the police to respond to emergencies with speed. Even if all the cameras are not being monitored simultaneously, the moment an incident happens, in case the Control Room has not caught it instantly, the local beat constable or even local citizens know the Control Number and can inform about the happening through a call. In that case, the Control room at once focuses on the footage captured by cameras on that location—be it a fire, accident, theft, murder or doings of a riotous mob.
The system allows the footage of 5000 cameras to be stored for a full one month—all of it accessible at the press of a button. The cameras allow for close up shots as well as zooming in at the exact location to get minute details of the spot. That is why police response to calamities as well as mishaps, accidents can be swift and well informed.
Asthaana explained how merely having CCTV cameras doesn’t work unless the Control Room is so designed that it can remain operational during emergencies. For example, the Taj Hotel in Mumbai which was the site of a gruesome terror attack in 2009, had enough CCTV cameras. But since the Control Room was inside the hotel, the footage captured in CCTV cameras could not be accessed by the police to figure out the movement of terrorists. But the Surat Control Room can gather all the live footage from all over the City in real time. In key public places like the railway station, they have organized 3D coverage.
In the first phase itself, the incidents of crime came down by 27%. Since then as the system keeps expanding, there has been progressive decline of crime incidents. The system acts as a major deterrent because miscreants know the likelihood of being caught is much higher than under routine Indian style policing. In 2013 itself 44 serious cases of crime in addition to many smaller ones were detected and solved through this system. For instance, on 26/12/13 a murder was committed at 4.03 am in the Athwa police station area. The killers left the body in a khandhar (dilapidated, abandoned building). The CCTV cameras outside that khandhar caught 3 young men moving suspiciously around 4 am. Those video images helped the police zero in on the murderers very swiftly.
The plan is to equip each road of Surat with 3 CCTV cameras, each with a catchment area of one km radius. There would be two cameras for 2 lane movement roads and a third camera that observes the entire road. Multiple cameras are being installed for micro analysis of lane movement, such as catching the details on the vehicle’s number plate.
All these cameras are water-proof and weather-proof. Even though the technology has been purchased from Israel through an open tender system, the servicing is under the charge of a local Surat based company. Local servicing has made the system much more cost efficient.
The local police was trained into the use of this technology by the Computer Engineering Department of South Gujarat University free of charge. The head of this department is also a member of the Technical Committee set up by the Police Commissioner. Asthaana has also involved a large spectrum of citizens, including businessmen as stake holders in this entire system. It is this active citizen participation and partnership which has made the system a success.
The success is not just about crime figures falling but in greater confidence of citizens in their city police. You don’t find many grumbling and disgruntled citizens in Surat. They take pride in their police and the general administration of their city. One clear evidence: it is common to see young unescorted women moving around the city late at night, right into the early hours of the morning, especially on weekends.
It is equally common to see families with little children enjoying roadside picnics well past midnight in sundry parts of the city. During the Navratri festival young girls go around laden with expensive jewelry without any fear of being robbed or abducted. There is a palpable sense of confidence among citizens in the law and order situation and the ability of the police to keep criminals at bay.
A lot of course depends on the kind of leadership Asthaana has provided to those under him. He is available to citizens round the clock. His personal mobile number is well known to people in the city and Asthaana invariably picks up the phone himself. Most of the time, you don’t have to go through a whole hierarchy of secretaries to speak to him. He is also respected for his integrity and probity and comes down heavily on those found indulging in malpractices or running extortion rackets.
But none of the above would work beyond a point it Asthaana did not get solid political backing from his chief minister. Asthaana was in field duty jobs for eleven long years while Narendra Modi was CM. He says, Modi ensured for the police freedom from political interference first and foremost by his own conduct. "In the 11 years that I worked under Mr Modi as CM, first as in-charge of investigation into Godhra train massacre, then as Police Commissioner, Baroda and finally as Police Commissioner Surat, the CM never called me even once to influence my decisions. In fact, I got full backing even when I had to take tough action against miscreants within the BJP."
For instance in 2008 when Asthaana was Police Commissioner of Baroda, he had the challenge of ensuring peacefully Ganpati Visarjan in a city where every such religious festival led to communal clashes. As part of tightening security arrangements he took into preventive custody some influential persons as well. This included some BJP workers who were involved in provocative incidents. This inevitably produced a strong political reaction because as members of the ruling party, the BJP workers did not expect to be hauled up thus. So Asthaana phoned the Home Secretary and reported the matter to him and explained why that action was felt necessary. Asthaana says within five minutes he got a call back from the CM’s office saying, “go ahead and be as tough as necessary”. That strengthened the morale of the police in dealing firmly with miscreants. Consequently, that was the end of mischief mongering on Ganpati Visarjan and other such important festivals – which all passed incident free. Likewise, during the course of Anna Hazare inspired agitation, on one occasion, the police had to resort to lathi-charge. The news of this upset Modi but when Asthaana explained and described the ground situation which led to police action, Modi backed his decision.
Now that Narendra Modi as the Prime-Minister has issued numerous public statements that safety of citizens, especially of women, will be his prime concern, one hopes along with necessary changes in the Police Act, Modi government will extend the tried and tested Surat method of policing all over the country and handpick the best cops to run the system in high crime prone cities and towns of India.