22/10/2018 12:02 AM IST | Updated 22/10/2018 12:02 AM IST

Digital India: 10 Years And 2,000 Crore Later, Central Government's Online Crime Tracking System Has Little To Show

The government claims to have connected 94% of all police stations, but policemen are paying for the internet out of their pockets.

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JALANDHAR, Punjab — The success of an ambitious plan to network every police station in India—a 10 year old project with a budgetary outlay of Rs 2,000 crore—hinges on whether the over-worked Station House Officer in this nondescript police station in the city dips into his savings to pay the monthly internet bill.

"What can we do?" said the SHO, speaking on condition of anonymity as he feared reprisals from his senior officers. "The officers say everything has to happen online, but for two months we haven't received any funds to pay for internet."

The Union government claims to have connected 94% of the country's police stations to the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and System (CCTNS)—a common national network to enable policemen in different states to seamlessly share information, and make it easier to track criminals and repeat offenders.

Yet, departmental progress reports, interviews with policemen in four states and station visits by HuffPost India reveal these claims are grossly overblown, and balanced on a precarious fulcrum of ad hocism and old-fashioned jugaad.

Meanwhile, delays in deploying the CCTNS has pushed some state police forces to work with private vendors to develop their own systems which may, or may not, integrate with the national grid.

Six states including Gujarat, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Goa have already refused to implement the CCTNS as they say their own police software is far more advanced. This implies the CCTNS might be obsolete by the time it is finally functional.

Delays in deploying the CCTNS has pushed some state police forces to work with private vendors to develop their own systems which may, or may not, integrate with the national grid.

The project was supposed to create a unified network connecting every police station in the country. In its place, officers are struggling with a piecemeal system where some bits of police work—like filing First Information Reports (FIR)—have been digitised, while other aspects—like the registering of serial offenders—are still done manually and stored in dusty folders in locked file cabinets.

In Punjab, for instance, all police stations claim to register FIRs online, but all other documents such as surrender forms, crime detail forms, search-and-seizure forms etc are first filled out on paper, and then filled out again in the computer system according to National Crime Records Bureau data from August this year. This has duplicated work at the station, adding further strain to the state's stretched police force.

While the report claims that over 73% of police stations in India have digitised their old police records—to help policemen track repeat offenders, keep track of old cases etc—it doesn't specify a time period for which these files have been digitised.

In Assam, for instance, Special DGP AK Jha, the nodal officer overseeing the project in the state, told HuffPost India the state has digitised only selected records from the database for the last ten years. States such as Punjab and Haryana have also digitised selected records from the database for the last five years, police sources told HuffPost India.

In Maharashtra, one of the best-performing states in this regard, Inspector General of Police Brijesh Singh, cyber Security head, said his force had digitised old records dated back to 1998.

The consequences of this incomplete digitisation of police records are dramatic.

In July 2016, for instance, this reporter wrote about a child named Saurav Kumar, who went missing in Hoshiarpur, Punjab, in 2013. His parents, migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, immediately filed a missing persons complaint—but this was never shared on the state police network.

So when Saurav was found 40 km away in Kapurthala, by the District Child Protection Unit, officials had no way of knowing that the child's parents were looking him. Instead, Saurav was put up for adoption. Three years later, when this reporter chanced upon his case, Saurav had been cleared for adoption by foster parents in Spain. He was rescued hours before boarding a flight out of Indian when a district civil judge noticed a procedural lapse, his photograph was flashed on television screens across the state, and his real parents came forward.

We have neither digitised old records nor digitising the present records. What purpose will the system serve in future with incomplete information?

"We have neither digitised old records nor digitising the present records," admitted a senior officer in the Haryana police. "What purpose will the system serve in future with incomplete information?"

READ: How Andhra Pradesh Built India's First Police State Using Aadhaar And A Census

Technocratic nightmare

HuffPost India visited three different police stations in Punjab to understand why the Rs 2,000 crore spending, meant to improve the efficiency of the state police, has had the opposite effect.

Our findings suggest that the shortcomings of the CCTNS, like many top-down technocratic solutions, arise from an inability to understand the actual conditions in which the system is implemented by beat cops.

"I have around 15 investigating officers who have to appear for the court hearing every second day," said the Station House Officer from Jalandhar. "Since they do not have expertise or time to fill in the details online, I have to spare two cops separately for the job."

Yet the Punjab police, like many state forces, has an acute shortage of trained policemen.

"Sparing two cops just to update the CCTNS is a huge risk and not called for," the SHO said, adding that it was unrealistic to push such a system without recruiting data operators familiar with the software.

The system has a dropdown menu that allows policemen to select the specific acts and provisions of the Indian Penal Code under which FIRs must be filed. Yet, the software is rarely updated, leaving policemen unsure of how to proceed.

For instance, Punjab passed the Punjab Travel Professionals Regulation Act in 2014 to reduce instances of human trafficking, but CCTNS has not updated its database to include the act.

Once the information is fed into the computer in the police station, policemen said, it is a struggle to upload the data to the network.

"The system takes very long to update new Acts and its provisions," said a Station House Officer based in Patiala. "This causes huge harassment to our data operators."

Once the information is fed into the computer in the police station, policemen said, it is a struggle to upload the data to the network.

"We were only provided a bandwidth of 512Kbps on a single computer," said a policeman based in Kurukshetra, Haryana, explaining that many cases involve 44 different forms, photographs and scanned documents. "The minimum requirement to upload our entire data is a 4Mbps connection."

The absence of a proper internet connection is why some station house officers are paying for their own internet connections.

"CCTNS is not easy to use, the amount of data that comes is not enough because it's all manual entry, and the quality of photos isn't very good," said a senior Punjab police officer, summing up the system's many shortcomings. "Only a few people in the station will know how to use it properly."

Policemen are particularly frustrated as the system was designed to be used in concert with the e-court system. The idea was that policemen could use the online network to share digitised copies of case files directly with the courtroom where their cases are listed. This would eliminate the need to carry bulky reams of documents every time a case was listed.

Yet, 10 years later, the two systems still cannot talk to each other.

"This is causing great inconvenience to our cops as they are forced to do double work," said a Punjab policeman who works frequently with the court system. "First they upload the data on the CCTNS and later print out a hard copy to take to the courts. I don't find any point in the implementation of the CCTNS until it gets integrated with e-courts."

Funding issues

Private vendors tasked with implementing the system say that state and central governments have been slow to release budgets to pay for the deployment of the CCTNS.

Punjab, Haryana and majority of the north eastern states have refused to allocate funds for it, a senior executive with an implementing agency said, explaining that his company had closed down its operations in Punjab, Gujarat, Haryana, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram.

"The project requires the integration of crime and criminal record at the national level which is an ongoing process," said Praveen Sinha, former assistant director at the Sardar Vallabh Patel National Police Academy at Hyderabad, explaining that splitting the project between states and the centre had stymied its implementation. "The Union government must run it at its level. Giving it to the state governments separately may dilute the purpose."

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