DISCLAIMER: The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s); and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for Policy Studies or the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, cities and countries are left grappling with questions of how to minimise spread, how to meet the requirements of hospitals and healthcare workers, and how to manage dwindling resources while also mitigating the loss of life. This is to say nothing of the fatal hit that economies across the globe are taking by imposing travel restrictions between and within countries, introducing emergency measures to keep more and more people at home, and virtually shutting down the majority of businesses and industries.
Indian cities, which are densely populated, are going to have a particularly hard time containing the spread of COVID-19. Until the 15th of April, India is on ‘lockdown’, meaning that people cannot leave their homes except to buy medicines and groceries, and to seek medical help. Trains and buses have been cancelled; domestic air travel has been brought to a halt, following the international travel ban that was introduced last week. Time will tell how successful these measures have been. As Anne Applebaum (2020) points out, such lockdowns, if not complemented by structural support to the health sector and proper communication, might not achieve much except give the impression that the ‘state is doing something’.
Once the worst is over, we will have to take stock and hold our governments accountable for the lack of preparedness and responsiveness, especially since it seems likely that we will see an increase in the frequency of epidemics like COVID-19 in the future (Whiting, 2020). Public policy researchers and experts will, hopefully, use these learnings to build more resilient systems—health and sanitation systems, urban systems, communications systems, education systems. We might have to question neoliberal structures – long taken for granted as efficient – that have failed to offer a safety net to millions in the informal economy. It is these neoliberal structures that have helped build privatised, inaccessible health systems, and that still demand high levels of productivity in a time of crisis.
There is, however, the fear that we might end up spending our resources and energy on a rather different solution. That is, instead of creating more inclusive systems that can withstand the pressures of such a crisis, we might merely use this as an opportunity to increase surveillance; and direct resources into figuring out how to surveil and police citizens better, faster, and more minutely. As terms such as ‘lockdown’ and ‘curfew’ become innocuous, even virtuous, we are seeing rights and privacy being suspended without question or justification. For example, the Mohali district administration in Punjab put up, on their website, the names, phone numbers, and addresses of those in precautionary home quarantine. Khaira (2020) reports, ‘This information has been shared without their consent in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, exposing them to harassment from the media, their neighbours, landlords, and Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs).’ The administration justifies this as a required step to contain the further spread of the virus, arguing that public interest at this time supersedes privacy concerns (Gopal, 2020).
The responses of many police personnel in the present situation have been shocking. Numerous reports suggest that police personnel in Delhi, Hyderabad, and Mumbai have been brutally laathi charging people seen on the streets (Yamunan, 2020; Jha and Dixit, 2020). While such actions are unjustifiable in any scenario, these excesses are not even against people violating the lockdown, but people who provide or are seeking to access essential services—journalists, delivery persons, and healthcare workers. According to this report, a man in West Bengal who went out to buy milk was beaten to death by the local police. As Applebaum (2020) warns, there is no way to know ‘whether, after this epidemic subsides, new powers ceded to the authorities during the crisis will ever be given back.’
In some parts of the world, like Belgium, Israel, China, and South Korea; surveillance mechanisms are being used liberally to contain the spread of COVID-19 (Hamilton, 2020; Harari, 2020). Many of these efforts have been lauded. In South Korea, for example, which has managed better than most to flatten the curve, CCTV footage, mobile phone and car GPS systems, and credit card transactions were used to track people’s movements and understand the potential spread of the virus (Sonn, 2020). While some of these measures may be necessary, and have played an important role in slowing the spread of the virus, they also signal an increasing ease with which governments are willing to use surveillance technologies on their citizens. Given that we are in the midst of a crisis, governments have been taking these steps without consulting citizens or getting their consent. Harari (2020) argues that this is the nature of a crisis—but ‘temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon.’ While some countries are ensuring that data is anonymised, many others are not (Hamilton, 2020). And there is little information on how these systems work (Singer and Sang-Hun, 2020). There isn’t yet any clarity on whether governments will provide information on what data was collected, how it was used, and whether it has been destroyed, after this pandemic has passed. Citizens must demand this accountability. For India, which is still to pass legislation on data protection, this trend allows much leeway in gathering and using sensitive data.
In general India is increasing its use of surveillance technologies. In the anti-CAA and NRC protests there were reports of using facial recognition technologies to identify protestors (Kodali, 2019). The government’s National Social Registry seems to be a guise under which the government can carry out mass surveillance on every Indian citizen. The article that brought this information to light writes that the Registry ‘will either be a single, searchable Aadhaar-seeded database or “multiple harmonised and integrated databases” that use Aadhaar numbers to integrate religion, caste, income, property, education, marital status, employment, disability and family-tree data of every single citizen’ (Shrivastava, 2020a). Telangana’s ‘Samagram’ system, a ‘smart governance platform’, does not depend on Aadhaar to surveil its citizens (Shrivastava, 2020b). It has nevertheless managed to build a vast database that maps an individual’s location and contact information, relationships, education, identity documents, vehicle information, etc. (Ibid.). This database, that emerged during ‘peace time’, is used by government and law enforcement agencies. If surveillance systems are introduced to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, they might be here to stay. Alternatively, systems might be introduced ostensibly to ensure that such crises can be avoided in the future. Either of these possibilities should make us wary.
As mentioned, Indian cities face the most significant challenge in curbing the spread of the coronavirus. The Indian Smart Cities Mission aims to ‘provide core infrastructure and give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment, and application of ‘Smart’ Solutions’ (MoUD, 2015: 5). However, there is no discussion on disaster management or preparedness—neither in the ‘smart solutions’ nor in the ‘smart city features’. Instead there is an increasing shift from infrastructure development to ICT interventions within the Mission itself (Purandare, 2020). A cursory look at Pune’s Smart City Plan, for instance, shows that there is no mention of crisis or disaster management. The city does however seek to improve its CCTV coverage and remote monitoring technologies, among other safety interventions (MOUD, 2016: 39).
The state responses that we are seeing – surveillance, police violence, ‘lockdowns’ – reflect the government’s severe lack of planning; and not only in the long-term, but also in the short term. By early this year, the virus had spread far beyond China, and cases were reported in the US, Japan, and other countries (Taylor, 2020). In early March, Italy and Iran were already seeing hundreds of deaths, mounting exponentially (Al Jazeera, 2020). India had time to plan better, to consolidate resources, ensure that soon after announcing a lockdown, the Prime Minister would not have to tweet ‘THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO NEED TO PANIC’.
These state responses – given what we know about the National Social Registry and Smart Cities Mission – also reflect what the government has been prioritising. Unless this changes and we accept that data, digital technologies, and state control are not silver bullets, we can expect to see similar outcomes in future crises.
There is no doubt that we must cooperate with the Indian government and with state governments in order to avoid an unmitigated disaster. We also need to come together as a community and lend support wherever we can—to older persons and persons with disabilities, to our employees, and to the homeless and daily wage workers who might find it difficult to access government support. But this does not mean that we stop questioning government decisions or directives. While we will have to review the past few months and learn from the COVID-19 pandemic moving forward, it is also incumbent upon us to scrutinize what the government is doing now. This includes being discerning when surveillance techniques are introduced—and speaking out if they persist once this crisis has passed.
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Applebaum, A. (2020, March 23). The People in Charge See an Opportunity. Retrieved 24 March 2020, from The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/when-disease-comes-leaders-grab-more-power/608560/
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