Watch and Learn

The row over CCTV cameras in Delhi schools

The Kejriwal government inaugurated the CCTV scheme in July 2019. Sanchit Khanna / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
31 January, 2020

It seemed like any other day at the Shaheed Hemu Kalani Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya, a government school in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar. The students sat attentively in class. They were wearing their uniforms, white shirts and ties, and the teacher paced through the classroom as he taught. But high in opposite corners of the room, one thing had changed: two newly installed closed-circuit television cameras watched over the class.

The day, 6 July 2019, marked the official launch of the Aam Aadmi Party-ruled Delhi government’s plan to install two CCTV cameras in every government-school classroom. The decision came on the heels of a wider AAP push to surveil the city. In June, after a prolonged tussle with the lieutenant governor’s office, the government officially launched a scheme to fulfil the AAP’s campaign promise to install 2,000 cameras in public places in each of Delhi’s 70 assembly constituencies. A month later, Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister, directed the public-works department to procure another 150,000 cameras, bringing the total number of cameras to be installed close to three hundred thousand. The move was also part of the AAP government’s greater investment in public education. Twenty-six percent of the 2019–20 Delhi budget was dedicated to education; the AAP has more than doubled the previous Delhi government’s education spending.

Unlike the typical CCTV cameras that dot the city, whose footage is only monitored in central control rooms, the video feed from the school cameras will be available to parents of students in government schools. The DGS Live mobile app, currently available only for the Lajpat Nagar school, will allow parents to log in for 15 minutes at a time, three times a day, and access the footage in their child’s classroom. Ravinder Kumar, the officer on special duty at the Delhi education department’s Care Taking Branch, told me that cameras had been installed in nearly three hundred of the 728 government-school buildings in Delhi.

Tentative plans to install the cameras had been in the works since 2015, when the AAP came to power. A couple of years later, a few alarming incidents brought the initiative to centre stage. On 8 September 2017, a seven-year-old student at the Ryan International School, in Gurgaon, was found in the washroom with his throat slit. A day later, at another private school, in Shahdara, a five-year-old student was allegedly raped by a peon. These incidents raised widespread concern about school safety.

“The school is a sanctuary,” Akshay Marathe, an AAP spokesperson who worked on education policy with the Delhi government, told me. Providing parents access to the footage, he said, served two purposes. For one, it is a practical, cheap and fast way to provide effective surveillance, rather than setting up endless monitoring rooms and paying people to constantly watch the live footage. It also provides a mechanism of accountability, allowing parents to ensure that the schools are running well and teachers are present. Instead of enabling the government to monitor its citizens, the cameras are supposed to allow citizens a window into the workings of a government institution; instead of state control, they are supposed to facilitate transparency.

But not everyone found this argument convincing. In July 2018, a petitioner named Daniel George filed a public-interest litigation in the Delhi High Court against the proposed scheme, citing the Supreme Court’s 2017 verdict in the Puttaswamy case, which established privacy as a fundamental right in the context of the Aadhaar scheme. The PIL, argued by the advocate Jai Dehadrai, expressed concerns about the security of the CCTV footage and called for a study to be undertaken before implementation. The Delhi government’s counsel assured the court that the feed would be password-protected and available only to parents. The petition is still pending.

At the time, Amber Tickoo, a second-year student at Delhi’s National Law University, was interning with Dehadrai. She became interested in the case. She agreed with George’s position, but felt one major angle was missing. “I thought, as a woman, if I’m a schoolgirl, it would really irritate me if anyone could watch me live on their smartphones whenever they want,” she told me.

Tickoo filed her own petition, in the Supreme Court, focussing on the policy’s potential effects on female students and teachers. She raised concerns about slut-shaming (what if parents see their daughters flirting with boys and punish them?), about predation (what if a paedophile accessed the live stream?) and about an invasion of privacy during the sensitive time of puberty (what if a young woman begins menstruating in class?). She envisioned the classroom as a semi-private space, set apart from the home but also from the public sphere, where students should be able to develop away from the watchful eyes of their parents. The installation of cameras, she argued, was counterproductive to providing security. She demanded a study into the psychological effects of constant surveillance on children. On 12 July 2019, the court dismissed her petition.

In December, Dehadrai’s office filed yet another petition before the Supreme Court, this time representing the Delhi Parents Association and the Government School Teachers’ Association, Delhi. On 6 January, the court asked them to approach the high court instead, where the George petition is still pending. Aprajita Gautam, the president of the DPA, told me she was concerned about other parents watching her daughter. “They can place cameras, right? But why do they need to give live streaming to the parents? What is the logic behind that live streaming?”

Gautam has two children, both enrolled in a private school, which has CCTV cameras but no way for parents to access the footage. In general, the DPA skews wealthy—six of the nine members of its core leadership team send their children to private schools. “They are targeting voters who are below-middle-class people, who don’t even know about what they are losing or what they are getting,” Gautam told me. “They are innocent people. The Delhi government is trying to make them fools. This is a political stunt.”

I asked Marathe about the concerns. “Who is saying that?” he asked. “Parents? I haven’t heard any parents say that.” The parents who actually sent their children to government schools, he said, supported the scheme. “These are working people. They see violence every day. For them, to be able to check three times a day and make sure their children are safe—there is nothing like it.”

On 4 January, Kejriwal attended a parent–teacher meeting at the Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya on Rouse Avenue, which is the first of the 54 model government schools the AAP plans to set up in Delhi. Almost all the parents I spoke to at the meeting supported the initiative. Neelu Singh, who had two children enrolled in the school, told me she was happy to be able to check whether her children were studying, and to observe and assess the quality of the school’s functioning. Krishna Raj, her older child, who is in the seventh standard, was happy that the cameras would provide a way to hold bullies accountable. A few parents shrugged when I asked them whether they were bothered about another parent being able to watch their children via the app. “Bachche bachche hain”—kids are kids—one parent said.

“Only someone who is not working would be uncomfortable,” RK Gupta, a teacher at the school, told me when I asked whether he resented the extra scrutiny from parents. Only one teacher, Thalia Zartaj, voiced reticence. “If I say honestly, I have a dilemma: you never know if the parents are looking at the classroom, or if any anti-social is watching,” she told me. “Any x, y or z, any Tom, Dick and Harry—if he gets the password, he can have a look.”

None of the children I spoke to seemed to mind, either, except for Sayed Taha, an eighth-standard student, who ruefully told me, “Sir, ab masti nahin kar sakte jaise pehle karte the; padhai karni padhegi bas”—We can’t make mischief as we used to; now we’ll just have to study.