The Expansion of Video Surveillance in India

A recent market analysis (which contained many predictions, more of which tomorrow) identified India as one of the world’s fastest expanding video surveillance or Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) markets, and the coverage of policing plans in the Indian media over the past couple of years would seem to confirm this. In particular, in the wake of the terrorist attack on Mumbai, authorities in all major cities have been pushing ahead with the intensification of security and surveillance measures. This is part of a more general expansion of surveillance in all areas of Indian governance, some of which, like the new biometric census and high-tech border surveillance and UAVs, I’ve mentioned here before.

Cities such as Chennai have announced plan for 10,000 cameras across a range of settings (interestingly in this case, ‘marriage halls’ were one of the first locations to get CCTV – perhaps someone can enlighten me as to why this would be – along with state banks and major malls) and the police chief is quoted as saying he wants “the whole city covered by CCTV.” Delhi is combining a massive expansion of CCTV with increasing numbers of police officers on the streets, so this is not a case of an inhuman technological gaze replacing the neighbourhood police officer. And here, as in the state of Gujarat, in cities like Ahmedabad, the road network is a particular priority with Automatic License (or Number) Plate Recognition (ALPR/ANPR) systems and cameras being installed on all major roads. This ‘Intelligent Traffic Management System’ (ITMS) is designed to be multipurpose and address security, traffic and emergency requirements.

The diffusion of CCTV to more remote and peripheral areas has also been remarkably quick. Just recently, the northern Haryana region has also announced a huge CCTV installation of around 5000 cameras in eight cities, which will be targeted at “shopping malls, main market, major traffic points and escape routes in these cities” – an interesting turn of phrase, which almost seems to portray the city as a prison. Just as in the major urban centres of the country, here too the new systems will employ analytics including movement recognition.

This expansion has not gone unchallenged – see this debate over some of the Chennai systems – but the debates seem rather lifeless and complaints seem to be limited to hoping that there will not be ‘abuse’ of the camera systems by police, and commenting on the lack of any regulatory body for video surveillance. Nor has it all been smooth in technological terms. The Delhi expansion of CCTV builds, as in many cases, from the security upgrades for a ‘mega-event’, in this case the Commonwealth Games in 2010. However, as with much of the infrastructure for these games, there were reports of systemic failure, if not a total lack of functionality from day one. The cameras for the event were apparently poorly calibrated and made watchers dizzy an in some cases, installed where no view could be obtained. It is also not the case that what many nation’s security authorities would consider to be priorities for video surveillance have actually already been covered, even where there has been a demonstrable threat: for example, it is only now that CCTV is being installed at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, which apparently had no CCTV at all prior to this.

Overall, there appears to be strong media backing for a combined state and private sector discourse that emphasises CCTV not so much as a protection against terrorism (though that is clearly present) but as an unquestionably ‘necessary’ or even simply ‘natural’ component of progress, economic development and modernisation. Consider, for example, this description of the new “shining steel” Metro system in the high-tech and global information economy service-centre region of Bangalore, where “automatic fare collecting gates, metal detectors, CCTV cameras and voice announcement systems” were all of a piece along with the announcement of the new ‘signature tune’ for the public transit network. And see also this rather peculiarly de-politicised description of the history (and future) of policing technology in India, written by a former senior officer from Kerala state, in which the British colonial imposition of fingerprinting in India is portrayed as a collaborative advance and in which, of course, CCTV is pictured as part of a similar and apparently totally necessary new series of technological advances designed to drag Indian policing out of a ‘medieval’ period.  At the same time, however the historic (and largely colonial) legacy of a slow-moving, fragmented and conflict-ridden bureaucracy is still resulting in a very uneven diffusion of video surveillance across this enormous country.