‘80% rapes by persons known to victims’: Is India ready for Maneka Gandhi’s panic button?

New Delhi: In an update to Women and Child Development (WCD) ministry’s initiative to roll out panic button feature on mobile handsets, the concerned minister Maneka Gandhi on Wednesday announced that its trial in 47 districts of Uttar Pradesh has been completed successfully.

The feature will allow women in distress to send a signal to the nearest PCR and selected family members/friends, identifying the location through satellite-based GPS, in case of an emergency.

She had earlier said that based on the results of the trial in Uttar Pradesh, the feature would be replicated nationwide.

The UP trial

“I am happy to inform that the user trial of panic button on mobile handsets has been successfully completed in 47 districts/locations of Uttar Pradesh, including rural areas,” Gandhi tweeted.

“During the trial, family members of the aggrieved woman and the nearest 3 volunteers too instantly received SMS alerts,” she said in another tweet.

Gandhi said the minimum time for police dispatch vans to reach the user site was recorded at two minutes, maximum time was 26 minutes and average time was eight minutes.

She also requested Home Minister Rajnath Singh to launch the feature across the country at the earliest.

How practical is it?

  • Only 36% of women – who are the target demographic of such programmes – are likely to own a mobile phone than a man, according to GSMA, a worldwide mobile operators network. In the hinterlands, this disparity is even wider with only 12% of women using a phone. This fact makes the case more troublesome as media reports suggest that 80% of rapes were committed in rural areas between Jan. 01, 1984 and Dec. 31, 2009.
  • Moreover, the accused in over 80% of rape cases are persons known to the victim and it’s debatable whether panic-buttons on mobiles or any other form of technology would help when rapes occur at home or in situations where the accused is an acquaintance, an expert was quoted as saying in a media report.

Is India ready?

  • The idea a panic button surfaced for the first time in April 2016, in a gazette notification by the department of telecommunication. It announced that starting January 2017, every handset sold in the country must feature a panic button, and, by 2018, all phones must be GPS-enabled. While it looks good on paper, the plan faced setbacks due to glitches during trials.
  • In one of such instances, Delhi – one of the world’s most unsafe cities for women – conducted a one-day trial over a year ago. It was a nightmare for the authorities as the residents of Delhi made multiple attempts – most of which were reportedly “ fake calls” – amid poor surveillance, spotty phone networks which prevail across India. This, in turn, led to delaying of the project.
  • Apart from the national capital, the financial capital of India, Mumbai also underwent a similar experiment – when Indian Railways installed panic buttons in the ladies’ compartments in local trains across the city. The results were mostly the same as 1,000 false alarms were sounded in a month alone, even after the authorities had cautioned customers against their misuse.
  • In another case, within just the first hour of its launch in early 2015, Himmat, a free SOS-alert app launched by the Delhi Police in January 2015, sent out 3,000 alerts, of which only 45 were genuine.