On Tuesday, as thousands of farmers thronged the Shambhu border in Ambala in their bid to march to Delhi to press for their demands, the security forces used drones to drop tear gas shells to disperse the protestors.

“At first we could not understand that the shells were being dropped from drones,” said Tejvir Singh, a farmer who was at the site. “There was too much noise, so we could not hear the sound of the drone either. But then someone pointed out that the shells were being thrown from above us and not from in front.”

In some news outlets, this was report as the first incident in India in which the police had used drones to drop tear gas shells. However, the use of drones by security forces in India has seen a rise in recent years. Experts say that this falls in a grey area of law and poses concerns about the privacy of citizens.

Widespread use of drones

Tejvir Singh told Scroll that when the farmers at the farmers at Shambhu border spotted the drones, they though they were being used as aerial cameras to identify the protestors. It could not be confirmed whether the drones used on February 13 had cameras installed as well, in addition to the mechanism to launch tear gas shells.

An official of the Haryana Police told The Hindu that the state government used drones made by Drone Imaging and Information Service of Haryana Limited, or DRIISHYA, a public limited company launched in 2021. In 2022, the Border Security Force had unveiled a drone-based tear smoke launcher, describing it as a "force multiplier for the security forces working in the law-and-order management domain".

A Haryana Police official told The Indian Express on Wednesday that these drones were used as they have a longer range of firing tear gas shells than the guns usually used for the purpose.

The farmers’ suspicions about cameras being mounted on drones was not ill-informed.

In 2019, during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the Delhi Police had used cameras mounted on drones to identify protestors. Drones were also put to use during the violence in Delhi in February 2020, in which 53 people – mostly Muslim – were killed. In response to a Right to Information plea on the use of drones for policing during the violence, the Delhi Police offered "no comment" on whether there were guidelines, rules or standard operating procedures according to which they acted.

In an even more striking incident Scroll reported last year, residents of four villages – Bhattiguda, Kawargatta, Jabbagatta and Meenagatta – in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh had alleged that drones were used for aerial bombing in the area in April. Residents of several villages in the region had made such claims in January 2023, April 2022 and April 2021 too.

While the security forces denied having used aerial bombing, several defence and security experts told Scroll that the debris of the alleged explosives seemed to be of precision-guided projectile explosives designed to travel in the air and hit a specific target.

Over the last few years, police forces across the country have used drones for a wide range of purposes such as curbing traffic violations and to checking gun smuggling, They have also been deployed to bolster security for the railways and at events like elections, the G20 summit, Republic Day celebrations and the Ram temple inauguration in Ayodhya in January.

In Kerala, the police in all districts have installed a drone surveillance system, while the Chennai Police have formed a separate drone unit.

Loopholes in regulation

In March 2021, the civil aviation ministry introduced the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021 to regulate the area.

Before this, the use of drones was regulated by the Aircraft Rules, 1937 read with provisions of the Civil Aviation Requirements, 2018, said Dhruv Somayajula, research fellow with the Centre for Applied Law and Technology Research at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

Somayajula said that the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules put in place requirements for the drone operator to ensure privacy of persons and property and use “suitable procedures” and “appropriate applications”. The rules also prohibited drone operators from sharing data collected by the devices with third parties without consent of the data subjects.

“But these rules faced criticism from private drone manufacturers, which forced the government to introduce the Drone Rules, 2021, which had simpler regulations,” Somayajula said. “In the new set of rules, there were no provisions for citizen privacy and protection of data collected by the drone or any mention of safeguards to privacy or data protection.”

Even before the Drone Rules were introduced, the civil aviation ministry in April 2021 exempted all government agencies under the Union home ministry and police forces in all states and Union Territories from the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules.

The introduction of the lax Drone Rules in place of the Unmanned Aircraft System Rules was not the end of the story. A cursory look at the archives of the orders issued by the civil aviation ministry in the last two years showed that several government and private entities have regularly been given conditional exemptions from even the Drone Rules.

“Due to the near absence of regulations, drone surveillance for policing has come to rely on good faith as opposed to legal safeguards,” Somayujula said. “This poses a major threat to individual privacy.”

Corrections and clarifications: This story has been updated to remove incorrectly attributed remarks.