India's capital Delhi is infamous for the cases of violence against women. About four women are raped every day on average, and the city's police-to-citizen ratio is among the lowest in the world, which means help often comes too late.
India also does not have a central emergency response number, such as 911 in the United States or 999 in the United Kingdom. The police can be called on 100, but that does not cover health emergencies. In 2013, the average incidents of rape was four every hour across India.
Now an app is trying to make the situation better by offering its own security force that will come to your help at the touch of a button. 'One Touch Response' is a private emergency service, and claims to have signed up over 10,000 paying customers since it was launched two years ago.
Situations that an individual might regard as an emergency may not necessarily be perceived the same way by an understaffed police force in Delhi, a city of 17 million people. “Being stranded with your family at night makes you feel vulnerable and that is an emergency for you. But it might not necessarily be an emergency for the police who might have bigger issues to sort out," said founder Arvind Khanna.
India has just 1.3 police personnel for every 1,000 residents, which is grossly inadequate. In comparison, New York has a ratio of 4.18 police officers per 1,000 people. The worldwide median is 3:1,000.
Khanna created One Touch Response after the gang rape of a woman student aboard a bus in 2012. The woman, often referred to as 'Nirbhaya', died of severe injuries soon afterwards. The incident outraged the nation — causing huge protests in Delhi and other cities — and attracted worldwide media attention. Still, incidents of crimes against women continue to be three times higher in Delhi than the national average.
Foreign women are also at risk in the capital, so much so that the American Embassy warns its citizens not to travel alone. Khanna's organisation wants to fill the void where government is unable to ensure personal security. “We know what the limitations of the government manpower is,” he said in an interview. “There’s a huge gap.”
While such services already exist for high net-worth individuals, who can afford to pay significant fee to security companies, One Touch Response is the first such affordable service in the country, though it's only operational in Delhi at the moment. It costs Rs 250 a month for individuals, who can then download the app and reach out at all hours, 365 days to the company's central control centre.
The company had initially started off by signing up companies, such as HCL Technologies that offers subscriptions to its women employees. The service for individual customers and families was launched earlier this year.
To enable security teams to reach subscribers within minutes, the company had to figure out where to place them around Delhi, where some areas are more crowded than others, and can take more time to navigate. This experience was a learning curve for Khanna, a former MLA from Dhuri, Punjab. Now, when a caller reports an emergency situation, she is first guided on the phone and while 'first response' teams head to her location.
The Delhi Police, long criticised for not being able to prevent rising crimes against women, has rolled out an app called 'Himmat' or 'courage' in Hindi, that transmits a user's location data to the police's control room.
Delhi police commissioner BS Bassi launching the mobile-phone based Whatsapp and Hike group 'Himmat' for the safety of women in case of any emergency on road.
50,000 people have downloaded it so far, said Sundari Nanda, special commissioner for operations, Delhi.
While One Touch Response is unique in that it has its own emergency response team that can rush to help, other apps have also gained in popularity. Most of them mainly serve to transmit location information, and alert a list of contacts designated by users or connect to a police helpline in case of emergencies.
Taxi-hailing apps such as Uber and Ola have now incorporated a security feature that enables a user's family or friends to track her trip. In December, an Uber cab driver allegedly raped a woman passenger, leading to a ban on taxi-hailing services in the capital. The ban has not been effective, but the incident highlighted the issue of women's safety during transit, particularly during evening hours.
Building a team with the right people in the security business is not cheap. Khanna is trying to raise $5 million in funding to expand to more cities, and be able to manage a larger subscriber base of 25,000 people in Delhi by end-2015. More customers would require a larger response team and better coordination across the crowded city.