Someone’s Watching You, But Who?

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Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem
Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem

In the fortnight leading up to Bakr- Eid, the Deonar slaughterhouse is replete with frayed tempers and dyed goats. In the past few years, the abattoir — the largest in the country — has seen caprine thefts worth thousands of rupees: goats, who had first begun to sport tufts of neon blue and pink to enable identification, were soon discovered at markets far from Deonar, sold by different traders at better rates. With an average of two lakh goats and three lakh traders in the abattoir at any given point of time, head-butting and bloodshed were usual fare. This Eid, cattle traders at the slaughterhouse received several gifts: clean mobile toilets, 242 policemen to prevent the trafficking of goats, a boundary wall made 8-feet taller to stop livestock from being tossed over and 41 forbidding CCTV cameras. Bakr-Eid, in 2013, saw no stolen goats.

Between two individuals, heightened surveillance — monitoring of movement and activity — indicates a corrosion of trust. Between the state and its citizens, it is intended to reassure: better behaviour is predicated on the threat of repercussion. CCTV cameras are different from the panopticon in that they come accompanied by a declaration of existence — to know that one is being watched should automatically make one feel safer.

Elsewhere in Mumbai, people are seeking the reassurance of video surveillance like never before. Following the 26/11 terrorist attacks, Maharashtra’s government had invited tenders for a Rs 864-crore cover plan to install CCTV cameras across the city, a project that will review its final bids this November. The Additional Commissioner of Police (Eastern Region) Quaiser Khalid has added a fleet of cameras to assist his officers in controlling the densely populated Mulund-Navghar-Shivaji Nagar area where street fights and harassment are too difficult to otherwise monitor and contain. Tired of being hauled up by the police every time a crime occurs in their neighbourhood, the villagers of Nalasopara pooled in Rs 2,000-5,000 each this September to hire a Mumbai-based firm to rig the village with 60 CCTV cameras. Most recently, following a spate of crimes against women on local trains, the Mumbai Rail Pravasi Sangh petitioned the parliamentary standing committee to increase surveillance on women’s compartments and stations.

illustration2Sarovar Zaidi, a 34-year-old anthropologist working on Mumbai’s Muslim colonies, says that CCTV cameras are an “easy technological solution” that let us forget the fact that there are human eyes and ears trained on us constantly. “A culture of suspicion has always been common in sensitive areas, but it takes on a different scale and form with electronic surveillance,” she adds. The local shopkeeper, who once doubled up as an informer, is now replaced by glittering, omniscient eyes of Chinese or Korean make. Often, in places like Minara Masjid on Mohammed Ali Road, Zaidi has found signs that announce “this area is under CCTV surveillance” with no cameras present anywhere. “The idea is to make one feel as though the state is everywhere, and watching what occurs even in the heart of the city,” she says. As a result, Zaidi claims that most of the young Muslim men between the ages of 18 and 30 she has interviewed have confessed to feeling resentment and mistrust. “They know that they are constantly watched because of their identity.”

The presence of cameras on street corners and society gates can often be just a way of talking about who ‘belongs’ in a particular space, and who should be kept out of it. This desire to create a panoptic society, according to artist Shuddhabrata Sengupta, goes back to the Neetishastra. “The bad dreams of the 18th century are revisiting us,” he says. “It was common even then to create profiles of different kinds of people, identify them and use this knowledge to create a fleet of ‘unknowing informants’ who aided the invisible emperor’s rule.”

With every passing day, the police is growing increasingly reliant on this invisible emperor in cracking cases and tracking down criminals. Most recently, the kidnapping and murder of 13-yearold Aditya Ranka turned into a landmark moment in criminal investigation with the Mumbai police turning in a 300- page chargesheet constructed entirely of pictorial evidence from CCTV cameras around the boy’s house and locality. In the horrifying picture book, Ranka is shown attending a call outside his house, being picked up by his uncle and an accomplice, and taken to a separate location where he is eventually burnt alive.

Yet, the many-eyed creature has its own limitations. In a separate incident this March, traffic policeman Sachin Suryavanshi was thrashed by 12 MLAs in the Vidhan Sabha assembly hall for having fined a fellow MLA on the expressway. While 41 cameras were enough of a deterrent to keep lakhs of livestock at Deonar’s abattoir safe, the 28 CCTV cameras present in the assembly hall turned mysteriously blind on that day.

In each of these zones, carpeted with electronic eyes, the information considered least important is: who watches the endless reams of recorded footage? Bandra’s three-time elected MLA, 55-year-old Baba Siddique (famous for hosting iftaar parties where the feuding stars of Mumbai embrace) believes the footage need not be seen at all “until something terrible occurs”. Following the rape of a 27-year-old Spanish national in his constituency last November, Siddique initiated the CCTV drive as a “show of strength” to ward off potential perpetrators. The drive came after a detailed study of Bandra in which it was separated into 24 potential surveillance zones, of which Siddique inaugurated two last month. The 360-degree footage from 16 different streets, recorded by five-megapixel night- and day-vision cameras is available to members of the police and Resident Welfare Association “should they need to see it”.

At the launch of the CCTV drive, a video interviewer repeatedly asked residents if the CCTV would ensure that women could now “wear whatever they wanted”. Policemen, Siddique’s closest circle and a few middle-aged folk seemed largely uninterested. A man called Altaf Khan smiled at the camera, asked the interviewer for the exact phrasing required and parroted, “Yes, indeed, women can wear whatever they want from now on. They don’t have to be afraid.”

A study on the ineffectiveness of CCTV cameras, included in the Jagori manual for creating safe city spaces (2010), says that video surveillance rarely inhibits what the study calls ‘personal crimes’ such as drunkenness and abuse. While it may assist in the profiling of repeat offenders and curb crimes like chain-snatching or speeding, the study found that cameras usually just result in the displacement of criminal activity to other ‘no-camera’ zones.

For women, the presence of CCTV cameras is a mixed boon. In an interview with this reporter earlier in the year, All India Progressive Women’s Association secretary Kavita Krishnan said increased CCTV surveillance could only work against women’s freedom. “The only spaces that needed constant surveillance for our safety,” Krishnan had said, “are police stations. Everybody should be able to see what goes on there.”

Last month, CCTV footage obtained from Parizad Apartments in Jogeshwari helped the police to arrest serial child molester Shazad Amruddin Ansari as he attempted to violate a seven-year-old girl in the corridor of her building. More and more housing cooperatives in Mumbai are opting for video surveillance at main entrances, lifts and lobbies, for the “safety of residents”. How societies recognise threats, however, often becomes a matter of common social consensus. “Single women are routinely discouraged from having male visitors around here,” says Nikhil Agarwal, a 28-year-old travel adviser and home-owner in Andheri. “It begins with the watchman complaining that a girl has too many men coming to visit her, then the neighbours make noise about it being a ‘dangerous situation’ for them and eventually landlords step in and evict single female tenants, or simply refuse to renew their lease.”

While CCTV surveillance can be a deterrent against violence in public spaces (as in the case of the young woman from Bengaluru, the footage of whose molesters went viral on social media, finally leading to their arrest), violence against women is an act rarely caught on camera. At home, and from familiar perpetrators, surveillance does not prevent abuse. Outside, in the compounds of gated colonies, on public transport and in street corners, it adds an element of voyeurism. When model and actor Rozlyn Khan was molested by a neighbour outside her Goregaon apartment last month, the footage immediately found its way on YouTube, news reports and comments repeated the fact that Khan had acted in a semi-pornographic film based on the character of Savita Bhabhi, and her neighbour was “offended” by a recent photoshoot that she had done.

Jagori’s study ends on the hopeful albeit Orwellian notion that women may begin to feel safer in the presence of CCTV “as we become increasingly used to being watched in public spaces”, but this is not usually the case. Recently, female bathers at Puri forced authorities to shut down CCTVs at the temple beach, claiming they did not feel comfortable being videotaped. Cameras mounted on the gates of the Savitribai Phule Girls Hostel in Pune are routinely vandalised by students who do not want to be monitored.

Privacy, that flimsiest of rights in a society where far more basic ones are at stake, seems overrated when compared to the safety that blanket surveillance of a city can offer. If one is doing nothing wrong, the old argument goes, then one should not be afraid of being seen. The syllogism is not quite as clear when applied to sexuality. Should the ‘leaked’ footage of a young couple kissing on the Delhi Metro have made its way to pornographic websites because two people decided to enjoy a thrilling moment of licentious pleasure? The new anti-rape bill may acknowledge voyeurism as a punishable offence, but it will punish only those who do not have the State or socially sanctioned right to watch.

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