Let the eye in the sky do the policing, writes S Murlidharan

India is not a stranger to satellite technology and its immense use in various walks of life, including beaming of television programmes, weather forecasting including cyclone build-up, and communication. The time has come for the Indian government to use satellites for law enforcement too. It won’t be altogether a novel experiment.

S MurlidharanUpdated: Thursday, June 23, 2022, 01:01 AM IST
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The grim knowledge that one is being watched over from the skies by satellites would have a greater effect in reining in miscreants and arsonists. | WIKIMEDIA

A commonly-seen warning sign on US roads is, “Traffic regulations are enforced through satellites”. And equally conspicuous is the admonition that traffic regulations are enforced through airplanes. These aren’t rhetorical or empty or vain boasts or threats, for traffic violators are often seen accosted by a police vehicle from the nearest exit. Obviously, the law enforcers on the terra firma are alerted from the skies – an example of machines alerting and assisting men in uniform.

India is not a stranger to satellite technology and its immense use in various walks of life, including beaming of television programmes, weather forecasting including cyclone build-up, and communication. The time has come for the Indian government to use satellites for law enforcement too. It won’t be altogether a novel experiment.

As it is, zealots as well as those imbued with civic sense catch nuisance-makers on their cell cameras and either embarrass the violators or hand them over to authorities. To be sure, the law on stinging hasn’t yet crystallised in India but that hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in fact exhorts the public to whip out their cell phones and catch officials with itchy palms red-handed, though it is easier said than done. Spycams and cell cameras are often resented and attacked as entrapment devices. But they have undoubtedly put the corrupt on their guard.

CCTV cameras however are not entrapment devices as they state upfront that people coming under their vigilant lens are being watched. Ajmal Kasab the Pakistani terrorist who wreaked havoc in CSMT station was caught on CCTV camera running amok on November 26, 2008. While he may have been unaware of or not bothered by the CCTV watching him, there have been reports of officials either defacing the camera lens or more brazenly breaking them to pre-empt proceedings under anti-corruption laws. It must be conceded that CCTV cameras can at best dampen the bribe-taking instincts at the public-dealings level. Corruption at high places is a different kettle of fish. Be that as it may.

Satellites, unlike CCTVs, are fool- and tamper-proof as the state of the art stands. Indeed, they are more powerful too with their high-resolution and wide-range cameras having the potential to cover huge ground. While they perform the pre-programmed tasks assigned from the ground, their services should be capable of being requisitioned by the law enforcers on ad hoc bases with appropriate approvals from their political masters without being hobbled, delayed or frustrated by the bureaucracy or vested interests. There should be suitable guidelines to prevent their misuse for settling personal scores.

Lately, India has been witnessing violent and widespread riots facilitated, ironically, by instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp. Some of them have been quietly spearheaded by political and religious leaders from the background. Anti-Agnipath riots were allegedly instigated and propped up by ex-servicemen running training or coaching colleges for the wannabes. They degenerated into arson and humongous loss of public property, mainly railway property including rail coaches.

Armed forces shook up the misguided wannabes by issuing a stern warning: “You will be disqualified should it emerge from police records that you had participated in the violence.” It has had a salutary effect, and halted the rampaging mobs in their tracks. The grim knowledge that one is being watched over from the skies by satellites would have a greater effect in reining in miscreants and arsonists.

If the decks have to be cleared for this purpose they must be done forthwith. The Indian Evidence Act may need amendment to pre-empt the challenge and lay down the nitty-gritty. And once in the statute, the law must be widely publicised so that the fear of god is instilled in potential rioters and arsonists.

To be sure, right to protest is integral and vital to any democracy, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to damage public property and otherwise disturb public order. Squatting on roads by the anti-CAA protestors at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh was rightly slammed and castigated by the Supreme Court.

Technology indeed is in the forefront in all walks of our lives. Chinese intrusion into Ladakh was brought out in prominent relief by satellite images including Google’s. It is possible that advance of modern science may also cynically encourage satellite hackers in the manner of computer hackers. After all, scientific inventions, contraptions and equipments lend themselves both to use and abuse. But that possibility should not come in the way of the Indian government embracing satellite technology to nab stone-pelters, petrol-bomb-hurlers and arsonists as well as to discourage furtive mobilisation done by terrorist organisations and Naxals. There is no reason why the government cannot pre-empt sporadic Naxal attacks with satellites training their guns on the infested areas.

Having championed the cause of use of satellite to nab miscreants, it must be emphasised that it must be complemented and supplemented by severe punishments that go beyond administering slaps on the wrists of the violators. The twin possibility of being nabbed, and then punished quickly and severely, alone can halt the anti-social elements in their tracks.

The author is a freelance columnist for various publications and writes on economics, business, legal, and taxation issues.

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