In a recent article in The Indian Express, Akshay Marathe, a member of Delhi government’s Dialogue and Development Commission task force on school education, defended the government’s project to install CCTV cameras inside all classrooms in state schools. Marathe, echoing the Delhi government, gave two aims of the project: crime deterrence, and disciplining students. His defence is, kindly put, problematic.

Here is why.

1. The aim of education isn’t just disciplinary: While a school is meant to teach discipline, it is also the space where students can make mistakes and subsequently learn from them. Creating panopticons inside schools instills fear, not values.

2. Classrooms aren’t public spaces either: Marathe is right that “classrooms cannot be classified as private”. However, schools are not as public as a footpath. The expectation of relative privacy is what allows students the freedom to express themselves, make mistakes, and inculcate creativity and imagination.

Contrary to what Marathe believes, this view does not “reflect a deep disconnect … [with] the reality of the country’s government schools”. The Delhi government cannot assume that constant surveillance of every activity will improve the learning environment.

3. Where is the government’s accountability? “Like any arm of the government, these schools will decay if not made accountable to the people,” Marathe says. Where is the government’s own accountability? Why isn’t there any regulation, or law to govern CCTVs in schools, or even in the city of Delhi?

They haven’t been transparent about the consultation process either. Details from the meetings between Delhi’s education department and parents after a pilot programme in five schools last year, and of consultations with children and teachers, have not been released.

4. How will this deter crime? The Delhi government hasn’t revealed how this is the best move to deter crime.

5. How far does CCTV footage actually help? The CCTV footage, as Marathe explains, is mute, and is available to parents for 15 minutes, three times a day, using the internet. “One can only confirm the physical presence of the teacher and children in this [15-minute] window,” Marathe writes. How exactly then does a parent identify “bullying, corporal punishment, inadequate attention spans, teacher absenteeism and even student truancy”? The probability that parents will monitor their children exactly when an incident occurs is quite low. This real-time and in-person monitoring is the teacher’s job, and its oversight, the school and the government’s.

Marathe also argued that the CCTV feeds “will empower them to not just raise their children better but also to ask the right questions to their child’s school”. A mute CCTV feed is not a parenting bible.

6. Parental access is not guaranteed: Despite Marathe’s acknowledgement that “a major section of the households that send children to government schools have both parents working long hours” whereby even attending “a parent-teacher meeting means relinquishing a day’s wage for many”, the government’s plan ignores this.

A few other points:

  • Lack of digital infrastructure: Internet penetration in urban India still stands at 64.84%, including multi-SIM usage. In cases where parents don’t have smartphones and internet access, what does the government intend to do?
  • Phone sharing: Shared access to a phone is a common habit, and the Delhi government has still not clarified, despite our repeated queries, how they intend to verify a parent’s identity on the DGS Live app.

7. A repository of children’s video footage is a bad idea: Marathe stated, “… schools can be sites of crime. If CCTVs can be deterrents to crime outside schools, they can be deterrents within too.” We only know that apart from the parents, the school principal, the concerned Deputy Director of Education, the Director of Education, and the Education Minister will have access to live feeds, and delayed feeds for one month.

We don’t know how this footage will be stored and secured, if there are any redressal mechanisms, and if and how these feeds will be monitored. MediaNama’s repeated queries to the Delhi government about this have gone unanswered.

In any case, creating a massive repository of video footage of children is a phenomenally bad idea, and a violation of their privacy. In the absence of any legislative and judicial oversight, it can be easily abused. Access to this repository to the wrong people (read: paedophiles, kidnappers) will exacerbate crimes against children. As mentioned earlier, parental access to footage isn’t secure. The primary aim of preventing crimes is then soundly defeated.

8. Research exists. Read up: “The criticism that there are no studies to suggest any positive impact of CCTVs in classrooms is oblivious to the fact that this is the first such project in the world,” Marathe says. First, CCTV cameras have been installed inside classrooms, and even pupil’s toilets, in the UK. Second, they are not useful in deterring crimes, as criminals just use “bandanas, hats and hooded tops”. Third, students found CCTV cameras ineffective when an incident actually occurred.

To understand how children feel about privacy, and the impact of surveillance in schools on working class parents, the Delhi government could look at the following research papers (here, here and here).

9. Government shirking responsibility: Marathe concedes that “when parents leave children in the custody of government schools, the government owes a duty to parents to look after their education, safety and well-being”. That doesn’t mean that the solution for bringing in accountability is round-the-clock surveillance of children. The government is effectively shirking its responsibility to put in systems of accountability, and to create an environment of safety through training and education, by delegating that task to parents (who, as indicated earlier, may not have the resources to monitor) and constant visual monitoring.

This article first appeared on Medianama.