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Panic button trials for women's safety to be rebooted in UP on Republic Day – will they succeed this time around?

Binjal Shah
16th Jan 2018
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A number of news stories did the rounds from April 2016 onwards, outlining the government’s intentions to mandate the emergency button and similar measures from January 2017, but various discrepancies that needed ironing out beforehand prevented its smooth implementation.

After a year, reports have resurfaced once again to reinvigorate those plans – but the question remains, have the external factors that created roadblocks the first time around, been addressed?

Will they be enough to ensure women’s safety and women in distress seek help, which had been the idea all along?

For starters, an ambitious pilot testing a panic button feature for mobile phones is to be rolled out across the state of Uttar Pradesh, as announced by Maneka Gandhi, the Union Minister for Women and Child Development, sometime last week.

This would serve as the most effective litmus test according to Maneka Gandhi – perhaps a reference to the notoriously high crime rate in the North Indian state. If this experiment is successful, she believes that it could be replicated pan India. “If it works in UP, it can work anywhere,” she was reported saying.

Another report by The Hindu citing an unrevealed source, states that the government is contemplating making the “panic button” mandatory in auto rickshaws, as reported.

Much like the rule that applies to cabs in the capital, this measure, thought up by the Delhi Transport Department (DTC), is such that a panic button would be mandatory in order to secure a permit to ply in Delhi.

Lodged near the meters – the rickshaws must be upgraded to be GPS enabled, and stay plotted on the map that is accessed by a centralised control room (CCR).

When the button is pressed, if the auto driver fails to respond to the CCR’s inquiry about the incident, the police control room will be alerted.

In the previous experiment preceding the January 2017 deadline, it was said that a combination of the 5 and 9 keys could be activated as push buttons for sending out an SOS – or perhaps, designate the pressing of the pressing the power button thrice in quick succession.

In the current pilot, the pressing of the specific key combination on basic phones will send out a call to the emergency number 112, and SMSes to police authorities in the neighbourhood. The desired family members and friends – chosen in advance - and over 25 volunteers in the vicinity will also get these messages, as reported by NDTV.

What went wrong in 2017?

To ascertain the efficacy of the panic button, and predicting its success and failure, certain vulnerabilities in the three-pronged system – consisting of the audiences, the technology, and the authorities - should be anticipated and troubleshot, in order to ensure a hitch-free roll out.

A combination of inferior tech, the lack of a robust system which is the most crucial support system, and a curious case of people misusing the button is what brought this noble initiative to its knees, reports Quartz.

On the day-long trial, Delhi locals, too curious to see if the technology actually works, started “crying wolf” en-masse– thus jamming the lines. Mumbai also did dry runs and in May 2016, by equipping the ladies’ compartments on a Mumbai locals with these buttons, but reported 1000 false alarms in a month.

Other apps have also tried and failed - of the 3000 notifications sent by Delhi Police’s emergency app Himmat, only 45 were legitimate.

“We would request the people of UP to take it easy and don’t think it’s a fun thing,” the Women and Child and Development Minister Menaka Gandhi had said, addressing this bizarre roadblock to a rather necessary scheme.

“Educating people about this powerful feature in their hands – to respect it and not misuse it unless they’re in an emergency - will give them a sense of great responsibility, and this initiative needs to go hand in hand with the rollout,” reiterates Anirudh Singh, a techie who has been working on various mobile-phone related solutions for emergency situations since 2001.

“All new technology adoptions take on teething issues. High capacity servers must be ensured as India has one of the biggest mobile subscriber population in the world. The Indian police is an experienced force. With more training, their response times can be improved to ensure good implementation on ground,” says Anirudh.

However, at the same time, increasing adaptability and addressing the disparity in phone ownership between men and women – the latter being the primary victims of assault – is also the need of the hour.

“In rural areas, women can be offered a special discount on purchasing their first phones under many women schemes adopted by the government. Under the Digital India initiative, mobile companies can also come out with special offers on phones for women in rural areas,” Anirudh opines.

A string of other measures is also being mulled over – like mandating stickers with Quick Response (QR) codes on cabs and auto-rickshaws, containing the details of the driver and the taxi, monitoring feeds after equipping vehicles – especially state transport buses, with CCTVs, creating an exhaustive database of drivers, and penalising those who do not register their details on to it.

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