The Modi Government’s quest to ensure women’s safety in India has resulted in a ‘panic button’ policy. From 1 January next year, all mobile phones sold in India must be equipped with panic button technology. From 2018, all mobile phones must have GPS tracking.

Indian government ministers were quick to praise Modi’s announcement. Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi, described the built-in panic button as a ‘game changer’. Communications and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said: ‘technology is solely meant to make human life better and what better than using it for the security of women?’.

Women's safety rose to the top of the policy agenda in India after the globally publicised gang rape of Jyoti Singh on 16 December 2012. When the news of Singh’s assault hit the media, protests swept across New Delhi and India, enduring beyond her death two weeks after the attack. In a nation frustrated by pervasive patriarchal norms,  protesters angrily demanded the government take action.

The case triggered a series of legislative changes. In 2013, stricter laws including the death penalty were passed through the Lok Sabha (Lower House) and Rajya Sabha (Upper House). Six ‘fast track’ courts were established in Delhi to deal with crimes against women. A women-only police hotline was introduced, as were women-only counters at police stations. Reporting of sexual harassment (or, ‘eve teasing’, the euphemism common in India), sexual assault, and rape increased. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, reporting increased as much as 15 per cent.

But while the institutional environment for reporting crime by women had improved,  India’s archaic and under-resourced courts mean progress through the judicial system is slow, often resulting in no conviction. It is no surprise then, that Modi is scrambling for new solutions to the problem of women’s safety in India.

In a country where mobile phone ownership is the second highest in the world, ordering a mandated panic button is one way to ‘protect’ women across the country. In the event of an assault, a woman will be able to trigger the panic function by keeping a finger pressed on the number '5' or '9' on a phone's keypad. This will alert the closest registered emergency contacts who can raise an alarm with authorities. Little more detail about the panic button is known.

There has been much praise for Modi for his #DigitalIndia panic button solution, especially by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, which began advocating for the button two years ago. But it is not without its critics.

Firstly, women’s rights activists argue that it is a reactive policy and makes no substantial contribution to improving safety for women. This is against a backdrop of politicians and police who have previously argued that women should not loiter after dark, should ‘dress decently’, and take self-defense classes. Activists argue that the government needs to do more to proactively address cultural challenges.

Secondly, there is the criticism of women’s access to phone ownership. In several villages in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, mobile phone use is at the discretion of the Gram Panchayat (village council). In the village of Suraj, mobile phone ownership and usage are banned for girls. In other villages, single women and teenage girls are banned. One villager argued: ‘Young girls get misguided. It can break families and ruin relationships’. With 250,000 self-governing Gram Panchayats across India, many women and girls affected by such attitudes will have no access to panic buttons. 

Finally, there is criticism that government is using women’s safety as a proxy for surveillance. The GPS localisation function is presumably so that authorities might easily locate victims of assault. However, there is increasing concern over the intention of this mandated function. Given the ferocity of the net-neutrality debate following internet.org’s arrival in India, it would be a paradox that a mandatory GPS function is so easily adopted.

Modi’s ‘panic button’ policy does little to address the cause of crimes against women in India. The high-profile Delhi gang rape sparked significant legislative change and ignited an increased pressure on the Government to address women’s safety. The Modi Government is desperate to implement policies that illustrate its commitment to reducing crimes against women to its domestic and international observers. However, critics have noted that the panic button is reactive and shifts the blame to women, that mobile phone ownership is often at the discretion of men, and that the GPS function is a proxy for surveillance. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user World Bank