Friday, December 8, 2023

Digital Watchdog

A safer Uttar Pradesh is in everyone’s interest. Imagining an app of the UP Prosecution Department striking fear among criminals is wishful thinking

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By Vikram Kilpady

Meditation has been around for at least 2 millennia or more in India and the world. Besides a blip in the 1960s, it has not been as popular with the “IT” crowd the way it is in the 21st century, thanks to various apps on mobile phones. Headspace, for one, is the most popular. Now the modern crowd lets its hair down and meditates with such apps. Somewhat similar to this is the craze for apps among governments, both central and state. Among the top reasons for an app, the technology friendly cover is the most important. So we had Co-Win and Aarogya Setu, and a thousand others bloomed as well.

The latest to join the app frenzy is the Uttar Pradesh Prosecution Department (UPPD), which pleads criminal cases for the state. The UPPD has developed an app with a third party to keep track of crimes in the state’s 75 districts. Of course, it won’t be accessible to you and me, but only to the department’s joint directors and the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO). The CMO will be monitoring it every 15 days to keep district-wise tabs on progress in investigations. The app aims to scan specific crimes like POCSO Act cases, crimes against women, and those under the Gangsters Act and the Cow Slaughter Act. A report quoted Additional DG (Prosecution) Dipesh Juneja saying the app became necessary since it was getting difficult to monitor all 75 districts. The department’s joint directors will undergo training to best utilise the app, he said.

Before the app, data would be collated in excel sheets, and a person had to be assigned the work of entering the information from all the districts. Now it will be on the app, the ADG said. Joint directors will get the number of cases, and their progress, whether in investigation or in court, will be digitally fed in. It is but obvious that freedom from data entry will not be available to the unfortunate persons who had been doing the excel sheets. So, the back office operations will remain the same, with pen and paper and files upon files in each district whose data will then be loaded onto the app. Among the app’s highlights is its way of monitoring witnesses in cases. The app enables messages to be sent to witnesses a day before they have to be in court to depose. As one has read, witnesses form the bulk of the prosecution’s headache. Those familiar with courtroom detective fiction of the Perry Mason or John Grisham kind would know how cases can collapse if witnesses recant or sing a different tune, turning a case on its head.

Right through the first and the now current second term of the Yogi Adityanath government, law and order has been given the highest priority in the state, as reports say. It has been the Adityanath government’s go-to display to contrast with the previous regimes, under whom it was said to be far worse. Noida residents will speak for the fact that police patrols zip by at all times of day and night, keeping the city safe and arriving quickly on the scene in case of a conflict, or an accident, or a crime. If one goes by the data available with the National Crime Records Bureau for 2021 (the one for 2022 is due this year), it does paint a rosy picture for Uttar Pradesh. Apart from reporting only one instance of communal violence, the data saw UP in the lower quadrant of states with various types of criminal cases. UP was ranked 23rd in cases of rape with 2,845 cases and 24th in murders with a case total of 3,717. Similarly, the state was ranked 28th in crimes against children and 36th in kidnappings for ransom.

The UPPD app’s larger motive is to bring digital access to crime solving and prosecution. The report on the app has quoted the ADG quite diligently, but has not asked whether the app’s data will be saved on servers in India or elsewhere. If memory serves me right, there was some brouhaha over the last couple of years about privacy concerns of data saved in China. That neighbour offers cheaper options and at an unimaginable scale. Let us assume that the UPPD app data will be in servers in India or Singapore. India’s United Payments Interface system has become the gold standard worldwide for other countries to implement. Several countries, including the USA, Germany and France have commended the UPI system, as reports note with great pride.

That may be one tech winner we have on our phones. The UPPD app, however, begs one question: will it help cut down crime? The app, as most apps are meant to, will help keep track of incidents like the prime time murder of Atique Ahmed and his brother Ashraf. The officials can keep track of witnesses and the investigation into the case and how it is proceeding in court. But the app is no Robocop or Batman to cause crime and criminals in Uttar Pradesh to slink away in the dark, to furtive stations far away and desolate.

Take the imperiousness with which Atique Ahmed was shot dead in Prayagraj while mediapersons were speaking to him. The killers were also disguised as a news TV crew, but the laxity of the police personnel accompanying Atique on April 15, 2023, certainly deserves place in the Guinness Book as the best keystone cop moment. Before his transfer to Uttar Pradesh, the slain underworld don had moved court several times, including the Supreme Court, pleading that his life would be at risk if he were to be moved back from Sabarmati Jail in Gujarat. But the number one law and order state couldn’t protect him, as judges noted after the murder was televised live, as it so happened.

One facet that will predate the app is whether UP Police will register every case that comes to them. In instances of rape, the police are bound to file a case when the survivor/victim in rape makes a complaint, even if the perpetrator is close to the local bigwig or is, in fact, the area’s legislator. The recent past reminds us that if the word of the Unnao rape victim and her family had been taken at face value, they may have survived the strongarm of the convicted, former BJP MLA Kuldeep Sengar and his minions. Just like the UPPD app, will there also be an app for citizens to file FIRs without going to a police station, since without an FIR prosecution or non-prosecution of a crime is of no consequence?

Or will there be an app to find out if all police stations in the state take down mandatory FIRs, as the law says they should? Forget apps, the Supreme Court has not been able to coax states to install CCTVs in all the country’s police stations. If such CCTVs were around, the gruesome custodial murder of P Jayaraj and his son Bennicks would not have taken place in Tamil Nadu’s Sathankulam, Thoothukudi district. And how many more unreported deaths could be avoided? We aren’t even talking about the encounters which happen to the high and mighty of UP’s underworld.

Remember don Vikas Dubey, who tried to escape from a UP Police van and was shot dead in July 2020? The story was convenient, the don tried to escape when the van overturned, despite its evading TV crews chasing the motorcade. In Atique’s case, TV crews were even filming the don taking a leak along the road. A necessary lesson in public deportment was imparted, the people were shown that big dons were being “encountered”, a popular form of extra-judicial murder that is enough for its audience to sing the paeans that award law and order brownie points.

The apps, as we do know, are not robots and are incapable of movement. A robot policeman may have been useful in Hathras, where police cremated the rape victim despite the presence of media crews. Some cameras turned off at police hectoring, but one journalist got the scoop of her life by videographing the burning pyre. Yes, a robot cop would have helped in Hathras. The UPPD app is at best a token app for keeping tabs on existing cases. The government should also keep an eye on laggard police stations where cases only pile up with no headway made in any of them. But how else can justice be served where police keep earnest track of probes, instead of averting them by curbing crime to begin with? Like those people plugged into meditation apps twice a day for 20 minutes at a time minimum, it is not easy to sit still and focus on one’s breath while a zillion other things jump into attention. But yes, digital rocks!

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