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Aarey Milk Colony, spread over 1,259 hectares of land, is an extension of Sanjay Gandhi National Park. In 1949, the land we know as Aarey was given to the Dairy Development Board of Maharashtra to shift the cattle sheds from the city to Aarey. Since then this area has been known as Aarey Milk Colony. Aarey has 27 tribal hamlets; in terms of flora and fauna, it has leopards and numerous species of birds, animals, insects, butterflies, snakes, herbs, shrubs and trees (which number more than 4 Lakh 80 thousand).

In November 2014 , morning walkers, cyclists and other regular visitors to Aarey Milk Colony found notices put up, announcing that 2298 trees in Aarey would be felled for construction of the carshed for Metro3. Citizens came together to protest against this mass felling of trees. Thus was born the Save Aarey Movement.

In December 2014 angry citizens for the first time gathered in Aarey Picnic Point area to protest against this unnecessary destruction of the city's ecology. 1200 + citizens came together again in February 2015, creating a human chain along Marine Drive. Post this event, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra announced appointment of an Expert Committee to explore other options for location of the Metro3 carshed .

The Expert Committee had 6 members; four Bureaucrats and two environmental experts from IIT and NEERI. Both the environmentalists put a dissenting note in the Committee's report, holding that Aarey is an ecologically sensitive area and rich in biodiversity. The proposed carshed location is the floodplain of the Mithi River, and construction in this area can lead to flooding in Andheri. Hence the carshed location should be shifted out of Aarey, they said .The other options for the carshed location suggested by the expert members were Kanjurmarg and Backbay in Colaba.

The Detailed Project Report prepared in 2011 for the Metro 3 Line also mentions three other options (along with the option of 33 ha land in Aarey) for the Metro 3 Carshed location: the ground in Bandra Kurla Complex, 26 Ha of land in Kalina, the Mahalaxmi Race Course. Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation ( MMRCL) always claims that the 33 ha land area in Aarey is the only suitable location for the Metro 3 Carshed.

In 2015 the NGO, Vanashakti, along with citizens, filed a petition in National Green Tribunal (NGT) praying that Aarey be declared a forest and an Eco-Sensitive Zone. NGT on 19th August 2015, ordered status quo in Aarey pending final decision on the case. MMRCL, in August 2017 started dumping debris in the Metro 3 Carshed area in Aarey, along with excavation and mud filling activities in the area. This was in contempt of Court orders and was highlighted at the NGT. On 14th May 2018, NGT again ordered against any dumping of debris, land reclamation and Tree Felling in Aarey pending final decision in the case. But MMRCL continues to violate court orders. They have cordoned off more area in Aarey on the opposite side of the carshed area and have started land reclamation. What initially started as destruction of 33 ha of forest land is now leading to destruction of a much bigger area. Citizens lodged complaints in Aarey Police Station against these violations of court orders. MMRCL has also evicted Adivasis from Prajapur Pada in Aarey to SRA Buildings. This is in violation with Tribal Rights. Adivasis have filed a petition in Mumbai High Court.

On 20th September 2018 Judges from NGT's Principal Bench decided that this matter of declaring Aarey a Forests does not come under NGT's jurisdiction and NGT directed the petitioners to withdraw application and approach the right Authorities. This has happened after 3 and 1/2 years long proceedings in National Green Tribunal.

Through an RTI in 2017, Vanashakti found a letter written by the Divisional Manager of Sanjay Gandhi National Park( SGNP). This letter indicates that Aarey Milk Colony was of a much larger area earlier, and that 2076 ha of land from Aarey Milk Colony was Transferred to SGNP in 1969. But the forest department claims that they do not have any land records related to Aarey Milk Colony.

The forest department, in 2015, had submitted a draft proposal to the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MOEF) to declare Aarey Milk Colony as an Eco Sensitive Zone. MMRCL moved an application with the MOEF and got 165 ha of land (1.65 sq km) from Aarey denotified from the Eco Sensitive Zone. The MOEF denotified an area of 1.65 sq km from the ESZ in December 2016. This decision has been challenged by Vanashakti in NGT through a different petition.

Already, a large part of Aarey Forest has been lost to different projects and construction activities. Citizens fear that with the entry of the Metro 3 carshed, better described as a railway service centre, the rest of this forest, spreading over 1259 ha, will be lost to construction activities for ever.

Mumbai City is already sinking because of the destruction of its water bodies, wetlands and mangroves. Loss of Forest area and destruction of the floodplain of the Mithi River in Aarey will lead to further destruction of the city and flooding in more new areas in Mumbai. Lakes , supplying drinking water to Mumbai are also located in Forest Areas. Vihar lake on the border of SGNP and Aarey.

The air quality of Mumbai will be seriously hit if 4000 full grown trees are removed from its last remaining green space,the Aarey forests. .

A Movement that started with the news of felling of 2298 trees has brought out more shocking details. MMRCL floated a tender document for felling of 3384 trees in Aarey Milk Colony in 2017. And number of trees that are in line for sacrifice is still increasing. Tribals have lost their homes and livelihood. Floodplain of Mithi River has been damaged and this city will finally lose 1.65 sq km of forest areas to construction activities if this Carshed is not shifted out of Aarey. Facts finding team of Citizens have also found letters that speak about Government granting 3 FSI on 33 ha (82.5 acres) of Aarey land. A design layout prepared by MMRCL for the Carshed area also has marked an area on 33 ha land for realestate prooject.

Citizens of Mumbai needs to decide what is more important for them. A peaceful and happy life in a place requires, Fresh Air, Good supply of Drinking water , accessible open spaces and flood free roads .

In a Costal city like Mumbai, when the entire world is suffering from the consequences of Global Warming a place like Aarey becomes extremely crucial for survival of the city.

A group of people protesting the nationwide crackdown on human rights activists were picked up and arrested at Liberty chowrasta near the Ambedkar statue in Hyderabad around 11am on August 29. The protesters were not even allowed to stand near the Ambedkar statue and were arrested and detained by Hyderabad police. Some bystanders were also picked up and nearly 5 vans full of people have been dragged and taken away. Nearly 250 police personnel have been deployed in the vicinity. Protesters, however, continue to gather around the area.

dissent is patriotic

The protests were organised in connection with the August 28 raids against on human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, teachers and cultural activists and trade unionists. Pune police conducted raids on the houses of Varavara Rao, poet and renowned activist, Sudha Bharadwaj a well known civil rights activist and lawyer who has been working and organising labourers in Chhattisgarh, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira, Mumbai based activists who have repeatedly expressed dissent against the State and Gautam Navlakha, also a civil rights activist and journalist who has extensively written about the Human Rights violations in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. They were arrested for allegedly having ‘Maoist’ links and being connected with the Elgaar Parishad. Right-wing Twitter trolls have been quick to brand them ‘Urban Maoists’.

The arrested have been booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and 3 of the 5 arrested are expected to be presented in court today.

Apart from this Father Stan Swamy, who has been organising Adivasis in Khunti, Jharkhand has also had to experience the wrath of the Pune Police who presented him with a warrant written in Marathi. Interestingly, Swamy had nothing to do with the Elgaar Parishad!

It is clear that the State is hell-bent on stifling voices of dissent that threaten their electoral power. This witch-hunt is a clear threat to a Democracy and the Constitutional Principles of Freedom to dissent.

Human rights defenders and activists have expressed their solidarity and concerns over the State's unprecedented attack on these activists. Protests meetings and conferences have been organised in various parts of the country.

Originally published here.

Imagine a democratic protest where a million farmers, labourers and others march to the capital and compel discussion of the exploding crisis of the countryside in a special three-week session of Parliament

Farmer long march in Mumbai. Night at somaiya ground
Farmer long march in Mumbai. Night at somaiya ground. Photo: People's Archive of Rural India

 

India’s agrarian crisis has gone beyond the agrarian.

It’s a crisis of society. Maybe even a civilizational crisis, with perhaps the largest body of small farmers and labourers on earth fighting to save their livelihoods. The agrarian crisis is no longer just a measure of loss of land. Nor only a measure of loss of human life, jobs or productivity. It is a measure of our own loss of humanity. Of the shrinking boundaries of our humaneness. That we have sat by and watched the deepening misery of the dispossessed, including the death by suicide of well over 300,000 farmers these past 20 years. While some – ‘leading economists’ – have mocked the enormous suffering around us, even denying the existence of a crisis.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has not published data on farmers’ suicides for two years now. For some years before that, fraudulent data logged in by major states severely distorted the agency’s estimates. For instance, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal and many others claimed ‘zero suicides’ by farmers in their states. In 2014, 12 states and 6 Union Territories claimed ‘zero suicides’ among their farmers. The 2014 and 2015 NCRB reports saw huge, shameless fiddles in the methodology – aimed at bringing down the numbers.

And yet they keep rising.

Meanwhile, protests by farmers and labourers are on the rise. Farmers have been shot dead – as in Madhya Pradesh. Derided or cheated in agreements, as in Maharashtra. And devastated by demonetisation, as in just about everywhere. Anger and pain are mounting in the countryside. And not just among farmers but amongst labourers who find the MNREGA being dismantled by design. Amongst fisherfolk, forest communities, artisans, exploited anganwadi workers. Amongst those who send their children to government schools, only to find the state itself killing its own schools. Also, small government employees and transport and public sector workers whose jobs are on the anvil.

Vishwanath Khule, a marginal farmer, lost his entire crop during the drought year. His son, Vishla Khule, consumed a bottle of weedicide that Vishwanath had bought
Vishwanath Khule of Vidarbha’s Akola district, whose son Vishal consumed weedicide. Farmer suicides are mounting, but governments are falsifying numbers. Photo: Jaideep Hardikar / People's Archive of Rural India

And the crisis of the rural is no longer confined to the rural. Studies suggest an absolute decline in employment in the country between 2013-14 and 2015-16.

The 2011 Census signalled perhaps the greatest distress-driven migrations we’ve seen in independent India. And millions of poor fleeing the collapse of their livelihoods have moved out to other villages, rural towns, urban agglomerations, big cities – in search of jobs that are not there. Census 2011 logs nearly 15 million fewer farmers (‘main cultivators’) than there were in 1991. And you now find many once-proud food-producers working as domestic servants. The poor are now up for exploitation by both urban and rural elites.

The government tries its best not to listen. It’s the same with the news media.

When the media do skim over the issues, they mostly reduce them to demands for a ‘loan waiver.’ In recent days, they’ve recognised the minimum support price (MSP) demand of farmers – the Cost of Production (CoP2) + 50 per cent. But the media don’t challenge the government’s claims of already having implemented this demand. Nor do they mention that the National Commission on Farmers (NCF; popularly known as the Swaminathan Commission) flagged a bunch of other, equally serious issues. Some of the NCF’s reports have remained in Parliament 12 years without discussion. Also the media, while denouncing loan waiver appeals, won’t mention that corporates and businessmen account for the bulk of the non-performing assets drowning the banks.

Perhaps the time has come for a very large, democratic protest, alongside a demand for Parliament to hold a three-week or 21-day special session dedicated entirely to the crisis and related issues. A joint session of both houses.

Two women sitting at Azad maidanIn Mumbai, covering their heads with cardboard boxes in the blistering heat.
We can’t resolve the agrarian crisis if we do not engage with the rights and problems of women farmers PHOTO • BINAIFER BHARUCHA / People's Archive of Rural India

On what principles would that session be based? The Indian Constitution. Specifically, the most important of its Directive Principles of State Policy. That chapter speaks of a need to “minimise the inequalities in income” and “endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities, opportunities….” The principles call for “a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life.”

The right to work, to education, to social security. The raising of the level of nutrition and of public health. The right to a better standard of living. Equal pay for equal work for men and women. Just and humane conditions of work. These are amongst the main principles. The Supreme Court has more than once said the Directive Principles are as important as our Fundamental Rights.

An agenda for the special session? Some suggestions that others concerned by the situation can amend or add to:

3 days: Discussion of the Swaminathan Commission report – 12 years overdue.

It submitted five reports between December 2004 and October 2006 that cover a multitude of vital issues and not just MSP. Those include, to name a few: productivity, profitability, sustainability; technology and technology fatigue; dryland farming, price shocks and stabilisation – and much more. We also need to halt the privatisation of agricultural research and technology. And deal with impending ecological disaster.

3 days: People’s testimonies.

Let victims of the crisis speak from the floor of Parliament’s central hall and tell the nation what the crisis is about, what it has done to them and countless millions of others. And it’s not just about farming. But how surging privatisation of health and education has devastated the rural poor, indeed all the poor. Health expenditure is either the fastest or second fastest growing component of rural family debt.

3 days: Credit crisis.

The unrelenting rise of indebtedness. This has been a huge driving factor in the suicide deaths of countless thousands of farmers, apart from devastating millions of others. Often it has meant loss of much or all of their land. Policies on institutional credit paved the way for the return of the moneylender.

3 days: The country’s mega water crisis.

It’s much greater than a drought. This government seems determined to push through privatisation of water in the name of ‘rational pricing’. We need the right to drinking water established as a fundamental human right – and the banning of privatisation of this life-giving resource in any sector. Ensuring social control and equal access, particularly to the landless.

3 days: The rights of women farmers.

The agrarian crisis cannot be resolved without engaging with the rights – including those of ownership – and problems of those who do the most work in the fields and farms. While in the Rajya Sabha, Prof. Swaminathan introduced the Women Farmers’ Entitlements Bill, 2011 (lapsed in 2013) that could still provide a starting point for this debate.

3 days: The rights of landless labourers, both women and men.

With mounting distress migrations in many directions, this crisis is no longer just rural. Where it is, any public investment made in agriculture has to factor in their needs, their rights, their perspective.

3 days: Debate on agriculture.

What kind of farming do we want 20 years from now? One driven by corporate profit? Or by communities and families for whom it is the basis of their existence? There are also other forms of ownership and control in agriculture we need to press for – like the vigorous sangha krishi (group farming) efforts of Kerala’s Kudumbashree movement. And we have to revive the unfinished agenda of land reform. For all of the above debates to be truly meaningful – and this is very important – every one of them must focus, too, on the rights of Adivasi and Dalit farmers and labourers.

While no political party would openly oppose such a session, who will ensure it actually happens? The dispossessed themselves.

Midnight walk to Azad Maidan
The morcha of farmers from Nashik to Mumbai in March has to go national – not just of farmers and labourers, but also others devastated by the crisis PHOTO • SHRIRANG SWARGE / People's Archive of Rural India

In March this year, 40,000 peasants and labourers marched for a week from Nashik to Mumbai making some of these very demands. An arrogant government in Mumbai dismissed the marchers as ‘urban Maoists’ with whom it would not talk. But caved in within hours of the multitude reaching Mumbai to encircle the state legislative assembly. That was the rural poor sorting out their government.

The highly disciplined marchers struck a rare chord in Mumbai. Not just the urban working class, but also the middle classes, even some from the upper middle classes, stepped out in sympathy.

We need to do this at the national level – scaled up 25 times over. A Long March of the Dispossessed – not just of farmers and labourers, but also others devastated by the crisis. And importantly, those not affected by it – but moved by the misery of fellow human beings. Those standing for justice and democracy. A march starting from everywhere in the country, converging on the capital. No Red Fort rallies, nor skulls at Jantar Mantar. That march should encircle Parliament – compel it to hear, listen and act. Yes, they would Occupy Delhi.

It might take many months to get off the ground, a gargantuan logistical challenge. One that has to be met by the largest and widest coalition possible of farm, labour and other organisations. It will face great hostility from the rulers – and their media – who would seek to undermine it at every stage.

It can be done. Do not underestimate the poor – it is they, not the chattering classes, who keep democracy alive.

It would be one of the highest forms of democratic protest – a million human beings or more showing up to ensure their representatives perform. As a Bhagat Singh, if alive, might have said of them: they could make the deaf hear, the blind see and the dumb speak.

This article was originally published in the People's Archive of Rural India on June 22, 2018

Originally published by The New Indian Express, deleted without explanation.

MUMBAI: A district cooperative bank, which has Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah as a director, netted the highest deposits among such banks of old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes that were abruptly demonetised on November 8, 2016, according to RTI replies received by a Mumbai activist.

The Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank (ADCB) secured deposits of Rs 745.59 crore of the spiked notes -- in just five days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the demonetisation announcement. All the district cooperative banks were banned from accepting deposits of the banned currency notes from the public after November 14, 2016, -- five days after demonetisation -- on fears that black money would be laundered through this route.

According to the bank's website, Shah continues to be a director with the bank and has been in that position for several years. He was also the bank's chairman in 2000. ADCB's total deposits on March 31, 2017, were Rs 5,050 crore and its net profit for 2016-17 was Rs 14.31 crore.

Right behind ADCB, is the Rajkot District Cooperative Bank, whose chairman Jayeshbhai Vitthalbhai Radadiya is a cabinet minister in Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani's government. It got deposits of old currencies worth Rs 693.19 crore.

Interestingly, Rajkot is the hub of Gujarat BJP politics -- Prime Minister Modi was first elected from there as a legislator in 2001.

ADC bank board of directors screenshot - click to enlarge.

Incidentally, the figures of Ahmedabad-Rajkot DCCBs are much higher than the apex Gujarat State Cooperative Bank Ltd, which got deposits of a mere Rs 1.11 crore.

"The amount of deposits made in the State Cooperative Banks (SCBs) and District Central Cooperative Banks (DCCBs) -- revealed under RTI for first time since demonetisation -- are astounding," Manoranjan S. Roy, the RTI activist who made the effort to get the information, told IANS.

The RTI information was given by the Chief General Manager and Appellate Authority, S. Saravanavel, of the National Bank for Agriculture & Rural Development (NABARD).

It has also come to light, through the RTI queries, that only seven public sector banks (PSBs), 32 SCBs, 370 DCCBs, and a little over three-dozen post offices across India collected Rs 7.91 lakh crore -- more than half (52 per cent) of the total amount of old currencies of Rs 15.28 lakh crore deposited with the RBI.

The break-up of Rs 7.91 lakh crore mentioned in the RTI replies shows that the value of spiked notes deposited with the RBI by the seven PSBs was Rs 7.57 lakh crore, the 32 SCBs gave in Rs 6,407 crore and the 370 DCCBs brought in Rs 22,271 crore. Old notes deposited by 39 post offices were worth Rs 4,408 crore.

Information from all the SCBs and DCCBs across India were received through the replies. The seven PSBs account for around 29,000 branches -- out of the over 92,500 branches of the 21 PSBs in India -- according to data published by the RBI. The 14 other PSBs declined to gave information on one ground or the other. There are around 155,000 post offices in the country.

Fifteen months after demonetisation, the government had announced that Rs 15.28 Lakh crore -- or 99 per cent of the cancelled notes worth Rs 15.44 lakh crore -- were returned to the RBI treasury.

Roy said it was a serious matter if only a few banks and their branches and a handful post offices, apart from SCBs and DCCBs, accounted for over half the old currency notes.

"At this rate, serious questions arise about the actual collection of spiked notes through the remaining 14 mega-PSBs, besides rural-urban banks, private banks (like ICICI, HDFC and others), local cooperatives, Jankalyan Banks and credit cooperatives and other entities with banking licenses, the figures of which are not made available under RTI," he said.

The SCBs were allowed to exchange or take deposits of banned notes till December 30, 2016 -- for a little over seven weeks, in contrast to district cooperative banks which were allowed only five days of transactions.

The prime minister during his demonetisation speech had said that Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes could be deposited in bank or post office accounts from November 10 till close of banking hours on December 30, 2016, without any limit. "Thus you will have 50 days to deposit your notes and there is no need for panic," he had said.

After an uproar, mostly from BJP allies, the government also opened a small window in mid-2017, during the presidential elections, allowing the 32 SCBs and 370 DCCBs -- largely owned, managed or controlled by politicians of various parties -- to deposit their stocks of the spiked notes with the RBI. The move was strongly criticised by the Congress and other major Opposition parties.

Among the SCBs, the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank topped the list of depositors with Rs 1,128 crore from 55 branches and the smallest share of Rs 5.94 crore came from just five branches of Jharkhand State Cooperative Bank, according to the replies.

Surprisingly, the Andaman & Nicobar State Cooperative Bank's share (from 29 branches) was Rs 85.76 crore.

While Maharashtra has a population of 12 crore, Jharkhand's population is 3.6 crore. Andaman & Nicobar Islands have less than four lakh residents.

The poorest of all the cooperative banks in the country is Banki Central Cooperative Bank Ltd in Odisha, which admitted to receiving zero deposits of the spiked currency.

Of the total 21 PSBs, State Bank of India, Bank of Baroda, Bank of Maharashtra, Central Bank of India, Dena Bank, Indian Overseas Bank, Punjab & Sindh Bank, Vijaya Bank, Andhra Bank, Syndicate Bank, UCO Bank, United Bank of India, Oriental Bank of Commerce, and IDBI Bank (14 banks) -- with over 63,500 branches amongst them -- did not give any information on deposits.

Automated surveillance technology using drones to spot problematic human behavior in crowds is going to be tested at Technozion and Spring Spree festivals at NIT Warangal, reports the Verge. Lead researcher Amarjot Singh of the University of Cambridge claimed that their system has 94% accuracy at identifying violent poses. However, this accuracy drops with more people in the frame (like there would be at a festival), for example, to 79% with 10 people in the frame.

Police surveillance is growing without much scrutiny in recent years. The laws governing such surveillance have grey areas in which a lot of video surveillance technology currently operates. Reported applications include face recognition technology, behavior recognition, as in the case of the surveillance drones reported in The Verge, facial recognition and linking with police records, including tagging personal information with Aadhaar and sharing it across states.

An increasing number of cities have police using various kinds of surveillance databases to get better information on suspects and potential criminals in the city. These databases, where individual policemen can add the information of people to have some disturbing implications. There are several cities using Facial Recognition Softwares to assist policemen keep track of criminals.

Surveillance of everyone, not just criminals or suspects

There are several cities where CCTV camera networks scan everyone on the street and match their faces against a database of suspects and criminals. Here is a partial list:

  • In 2015, Surat became the first city in India to deploy real time surveillance through facial recognition systems when they implemented NEC India's FaceWatch in collaboration with Innovative Telecom & Softwares. The system uses live feeds from a growing network of CCTV cameras and can be used to monitor for crime in real time. It is capable of facial recognition as well as Automatic number plate recognition. Also, "It automatically matches faces against a database of 30,000 criminal mugshots and can alert the police immediately of anyone on a watchlist."By August, Surat had 604 cameras in 114 locations, covering 10% of the city with plans to add another 900 cameras in a year and bring the total to 2,500 in two years.
  • In 2015, Hyderabad police launched vehicle mounted CCTV cameras with a 360 degree view and ability to store footage for 15 days.
  • In 2016, Mumbai got 4,617 CCTV cameras hooked to the RTO control room and backed by 1000 vehicles fitted with GPS in order to coordinate with the control room were made operational with the objective of tackling law and order, fighting and preventing crime, regulating traffic and detecting traffic-related offences. These cameras are also capable of Automatic Number Plate Recognition as well as Facial Recognition. Additional Chief Secretary (Home) K P Bakshi told the Indian Express, "We can search for an individual all over the city. The cameras will identify the face of a wanted criminal. The camera will also pick out faces of persons roaming around continuously in one place. The nearest police van will then be alerted about the person’s location."
  • In 2016, 160 CCTV cameras were installed in Visakhapatanam as a part of a hi-tech surveillance network.
  • In 2016, in Vijaywada in Andhra Pradesh, NEC's Facial Recognition System was used to identify suspects and criminals at the Krishna Pushkaram religious event which sees around 50 million pilgrims attending to take a holy bath in the Krishna river.
  • In 2017, Jaipur police trialed a facial recognition system with cameras installed outside the Ganesh temple at Modi Doongri and controlled from the command and control centre called "Abhay". The FRS would scan the people before it and match them against a database of serial offenders and suspects.
  • In 2018, Cameras with Facial Recognition Technology are expected to be in use in local trains on the Central line in Mumbai, by the end of the year 2018, at a total cost of 276 crore. The cameras "will store facial details of commuters (for 10 days). The cameras with facial recognition software would help trace past movements of any offender on a local train and arrest the person when he travels next." A total of 11,160 cameras will be procured - 76 cameras for each rake, with at least 6 cameras in each coach of the rake.
  • In 2018, Hyderabad city police are matching the faces of everyone on the city's streets against a database of one lakh criminas, from the control room at the Facial Recognition Analytics unit at the Commissioner’s office at Basheerbagh. IT Cell incharge, K. Sreenath Reddy said that the local police are alerted only when the resemblance is more than 70 per cent.
  • Thiruvananthapuram police are using 233 cameras in their surveillance network of the city.
  • Paradip in Odisha is to get a CCTV surveillance camera network within a month.
  • Retired ACP Dhoble (of the hockey stick wielding moral police fame) is now in the process of getting a facial recognition software for the city and believes it needs to be created with the "help" of his son Kshitij, who specialized in Artificial Intelligence at Aukland University. An effort that initially began with a goal of tracing missing people has expanded its objective to "tracking criminals" as well. "Meanwhile, they began compiling the information of all 15,847 police stations in India and uploaded it on the site. One aspect of the site is uploading the information of these police and stations. The other is to spot child beggars, labourers and send it to the site."

Police database for use with mobile app -FaceTagr

This is a database of criminal records that can be used with a Facial Recognition Software (FaceTagr) installed on Android mobile phones of beat policemen and inspectors working in the field. When a policeman scans a suspect's face, the mobile app returns data of police cases filed and police station limits for the criminal the face matches with. Databases being expandable, the database has the potential to store the records of criminals across the country.

The application that was originally built by Vijay Gnanadesikan, CEO of Haliscape Business Solutions, to help rescue children by matching records of missing and found children, was first trialled for police use in Chennal

  • In 2017, FACETAGR was adopted by T Nagar police station of Chennai, beginning with a database of 12,000 criminals. An additional 40,000 suspects were added to the app to improve the chances of police identifying faces. The app used by policemen to "scan" suspects. Once a suspect is scanned, the app returns information about them.
  • In 2018, Chennai police will expand the use of FACETAGR to include interstate criminals as well by expanding the data used by the application to other Southern states. Currently the database has information on 67,000 criminals, including information sent by the Pudducherry Crime Records Bureau. It is awaiting data from Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala and Karnataka. The application is in use in 10 out of 12 police districts and is installed on the phones of beat constables. 18 inspectors, subinspecotrs and 150 beat police of Washermanpet were the latest to get the app, with "700 criminals in A, A plus, B and C categories".
  • Chittoor adopted the app in December 2017 with data of 10,000 sandalwood smugglers and 3,000 suspected criminals.
  • Pudducherry has also adopted the use of FACETAGR in March 2018

e-Petty

The e-Petty app is being used across Telangana state to book cases in minor crimes under Sections pertaining to IPC, City Police Act, Gaming Act/ COTPA Act 2003, Motor Vehicle Act and Town Nuisance Act. The app can record photographic and video evidence from the crime scene, photographs of suspects and generate an automatic chargesheet based on evidence. The app tracks previous cases of individuals as well and identify repeat violators because the app links profiles online with Aadhaar card numbers.

Hyderabad

Hyderabad is probably the most surveilled city in the country. The Integrated People Information Hub pulls data from dozens of sources to create profiles of individuals that include not just their own comprehensive information, but that of parents as well. It is a data hoarding machine gone rogue, where there appears to be no reason or reasonable suspicion required to put citizens under surveillance. The surveillance includes call records, social media, relatives and friends, utilities and more.

Questions raised

The use of aggregated databases and Artificial Intelligence  in large scale applications is new in India and the laws don't yet have necessary support as well as restrictions on implementation. There is no doubt that information is power and information on suspects and criminals empowers police to do their jobs better. The lack of development of proper laws, policies, protocols and facilities for the police to record and access information in a secure manner has led to the adoption of various technologies in an ad hoc manner with little overisght.

However, largescale use of such applications raise several and serious questions:

  • Is it constitutional to treat every person as a potential criminal? When all the people entering the range of a Facial Recognition enabled camera are scanned and matched against databases of criminals, it amounts to intrusive surveillance. India lacks a data protection law or a law defining the contours of privacy, however the recent robust arguments against surveillance and observations by judges in the Constitutional Challenge to Aadhaar are very clear that Indians do have a right to privacy and surveillance violates this right.
  • Data ownership: FaceTagr is owned by Haliscape Business Solutiosn Pvt Ltd of Chennai. NEC is a global organization. It is unclear who owns or protects the data on these databases and what restrictions exist against its misuse.
  • Data access: Cortica, a foreign AI company has formed a partnership with the Best Group to analyze CCTV footage from public cameras to predict crime. While technologically it may be a challenging goal, a foreign company with considerable ties to foreign intelligence has capabilities and access to individuals on Indian streets. The software is capable of using data from not just video cameras but satellite and drone footage as well and is capable of analyzing human behavior, including differentiating between nature of crowds - routine market corwd or a protest, etc.In the case of Mumbai, a company run by a software professional and a retired police official appears to have  access to information from all police stations in India and are proceeding to build a database! It is unclear how and why a software under development by private individuals has access to nationwide sensitive data.
  • A market of the gullible: The lack of proper evaluation or policies requiring specific standards has left the police of India a ripe target for companies selling surveillance products who may exploit the real need for collecting information or corrupt insiders to gain contracts. Many of the technologies described here have not been subjected to robust testing and have no published research about their quality. Some of the stories describe extensive installations that become defunct or are not of adequate quality to begin with, as in the case of Visakhapatanam, left with 3 working cameras out of 160 within 2 years of installation at massive public expense. Others describe extremely efficient systems, but ones that violate the rights of the citizens they are supposed to serve.This risks spending public funds for purposes and methods that may not be in public interest. There is an urgent need to consult with independent experts and digital rights law researchers and other professionals without conflict of interest to put together guidelines for data collection for surveillance, data destruction when its purpose is served, securing of that data to prevent misuse and policies on who should have access and a transparent process for granting such access.
  • Who is a criminal or suspect: It doesn't take a lot for police to consider someone a suspect and there is little oversight. There is no warrant or independent authority required to initiate surveillance against anyone. Such a database has the capacity to take the local prejudices of police across state lines and cause considerable harassment to individuals in all areas covered by such databases.
  • Utility: While there is obviously a need for police to monitor suspects in order to gather evidence, the legality and utility of randomly spotting them on the street is debatable. What is the utility of someone say.... suspected of having conducted a robbery... being spotted in another state - if it even is the same person?
  • Technological limitations: Such "identification" is inherently probabilistic and can be wrong. A good example would be the Welsh police wrongly identifying over two thousand people as potential criminals when they used Facial Recognition at the 2017 Champions League final in Cardiff in a crowd of 170,000 spectators. This has the potential to create a lot of harassment as well as waste police resources when applied to the far bigger numbers of people on the street in Indian cities.
  • Bypassing consent: A person suspected by the police and asked to come for questioning has rights. They can agree or refuse and the police cannot actually force them to say.... stand in a line up to be identified without any due process. Or they may wish to have a lawyer present when interacting with a policeman as a suspect. However, use of software such as this allows a beat constable to completely arbitrarily scan people who may not even realize that they are actually in a situation with the law where they may need to exert choices to protect their interests.
  • Human rights: As often happens when the state adopts technology, the advantages of the technology have been understood and promoted, but there appears to have been little consideration given to human rights implications of falsely accused individuals, potential for corruption through entering or removing entries on the database for bribes or blackmail, consequences of false positives to innocents and other potential fallout. There needs to be better consultation by the state when adopting such technologies with professionals (other than those providing the technology as a solution) to assess the wider impact beyond the immediate problem the technology aims to solve and mitigate the potential for harm.
  • Ability to maintain technology: Out of 160 cameras installed in Visakhapatanam 2016, 3 cameras were working in 2018. One of them being pointed to the ground, was useless.
  • Aggregated or discrete databases? It is not known whether the databases used to identify criminals through CCTV or the FaceTagr app or e-Petty are linked where they coexist. Aggregation of data across these databases has even more potential for the violation of rights of citizens.
  • Magnifying social prejudices: A simple statistical reality is that positives - whether real or false - will be higher among those who get scanned more. In a country where there is considerable documented evidence of prejudice against religious minorities or underprivileged castes, classes and communities, the use of such a software has the potential to magnify and endorse prejudices that cause their targeting. Take for example, reported cases of slums being raided and all the men in them being asked to identify themselves. The chances of these men being identified - correctly or falsely - will always be higher than say a person living in a gated society, where such raids are unheard of, simply because such faces will get scanned more often than those whose circumstances don't lend easily to such situations.
  • Use of Aadhaar for profiling: the e-Petty app used in Telangana is a clear use of Aadhaar for profiling - something the government has consistently denied in the Supreme Court.
  • Lack of appropriate digital security: Apart from the data being shared across state borders, or being hosted on private servers or foreign companies being given access to it - which are issues of policy to determine what is appropriate and what is not, there are outright failures of digital security, which result in unintended and unauthorized access to the very sensitive data being collected. Researcher Kodali, for example, had pointed out that the Hyderabad police were using a third party portal to record and geotag crime. The portal having very poor security for the purpose it was being used for, had allowed the indexing of crime reports by search engines for years, including the names of rape victims - which is not legal in India.
  • Lack of independent audit or testing: The systems used for both largescale CCTV surveillance as well as scanning individuals using a mobile app do not have information available on their accuracy. The lesser the accuracy, the more such systems will end up wasting police resources on chasing dead ends and causing harassing citizens.
  • A need for legislation: It is undeniable that the police need effective ways to access databases to find information on suspects and criminals on the fly. It is also inevitable that this will involve a certain degree of invasion of privacy in the interests of conducting investigations. However, this cannot simply be left to whatever software developers believe can be done or police wish to adopt. There needs to be a regulatory framework that will identify situations when such use is legitimate and protect citizens from arbitrarily being entered into databases as suspects. There should also be regulation of what information should remain local and what should be disseminated - a local suspected of robbery does not need to be found acorss state borders, but an absconding criminal found in the footage of a murder should be. There is also a need for legislation to remove names from the databases when the people are no longer suspects - for example cases people were suspected in get closed with others charged.

Further reading:

  • Research published by the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, "The Perpetual Line-Up" on the unregulated use of public surveillance by law enforcement and the risks.
  • Technological bias: While MediaNama was not able to find any research about FaceTagr specifically, "Face Recognition Performance: Role of Demographic Information" by the FBI about accuracy of Facial Recognition in various population demographics is an interesting read on the biases caused by how the system is "trained" to recognize faces.
  • Policy Paper on Surveillance in India by the Centre for Internet & Society