The common perception is that CCTV surveillance deters criminals. Governments ramped up installation of these after the Delhi gang rape of 2012; the Justice Usha Mehra Commission —tasked with identifying lapses on the part of Delhi police in this case—recommended cameras be installed in public spaces. Hundreds of crores of rupees have been spent since on this work. A lot of it comes from the Nirbhaya Fund, set up by the Union government as part of its annual budget to create infrastructure to ensure women’s safety.
By 2019, there were over 427,000 CCTV cameras were used by the police across India for surveillance, according to a Bureau of Police Research and Development report. This is only a part of the total number of cameras used by the government agencies. Delhi alone had a total of 130,000 cameras installed by the government, according to a 2019 Press Trust of India (PTI) report. Installation of 170,000 cameras more is planned in the city.
Yet, while they have proved useful in solving crimes, they haven’t necessarily been able to deter them, a new study shows. And concerns on privacy and state-backed surveillance are mounting.
Surfshark, a VPN company based in the British Virgin Islands, recently studied CCTV surveillance in the 150 most populous cities. Beijing, it found, had the most cameras: 1.15 million. Chennai, with nearly 280,000 cameras, had the highest density: 657.28 cameras per sq. km. Hyderabad and Delhi, with 300,000 and 429,000 cameras respectively, ranked second and eighth on the camera density metric.
But crime in these—or any other Indian city—doesn’t seem to have decreased.
Mint looked at the density of CCTV cameras in 15 highly populated Indian cities and compared it against their crime index. For context, “crime index” is an estimation of overall crime in a city, ranked on a scale of 100, with 100 being the highest. Surfshark sourced the crime index from Numbeo.com, an online database of user-contributed data.
Chennai and Kochi have a similar crime index: 40.31 and 41.08. But CCTV camera density in the two cities varies vastly: 657.54 and 10.54 per sq. km. respectively. Thrissur and Jaipur have similar CCTV camera density: around 2.1 per sq. km. Yet the crime index is 23.17 and 34.58, respectively.
Overall, India recorded 1.6% rise in crime from 2018-19, according to a report released by the National Crime Records Bureau in October. Crimes against women increased by 7.3% during this period.
In the second chart, Mint compared Indian cities to those across the world based on the CCTV cameras per 1,000 people. Here, too, there doesn’t seem to be any convincing correlation between surveillance and instances of crime. Durban in South Africa isn’t too different from Jaipur in terms of CCTV cameras per 1,000 people: 0.16 and 0.26 respectively. But in terms of crime index, Durban is at 80.81 while Jaipur is at 34.58.
So are CCTV cameras not as useful as they are perceived to be? It’s not such an easy correlation. For several factors determine their efficacy. For one, “while there are increasing number of CCTV cameras installed, the feed always isn’t monitored on an ongoing basis,” says Dolphy D’souza, convenor of the Mumbai-based NGO Police Reforms Watch and Project Lead (Mumbai) at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.
It isn’t just lack of manpower, he says, there’s also little investment in building an intelligence network across towns and cities. “Besides, we don’t have any audit data of the CCTV cameras: where they are placed, if they are working, or if the technology used is up to the mark. It’s important that if you want better output, you must consult with the civil society. But there has been no such consultation,” he adds.
Industry researcher IHS Markit says 2021 may be the world exceeds the one billion figure for CCTV cameras. Time perhaps for India, and Indians, to rethink their CCTV strategy.