A large flat-screen TV flickers for a second before the images appear: uniformed students studying in a classroom; a teacher walking down a hallway; the wide, bustling street outside the gates. From the comfort of his office, principal BK Sharma can monitor everything happening at his school.

SHK Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya occupies a neat, white, two-story building in the Lajpat Nagar area of Delhi. Inside, 51 teachers take charge of approximately 1,500 students aged between 3 and 18. In July it became the first government school in the Indian capital to install CCTV throughout its classrooms and public areas. A total of 212 cameras were placed in every teaching room, lab and hallway, its library, staff room and playground — everywhere except student and staff toilets.

Principal BK Sharma believes that the cameras help to enforce discipline among students, who are mostly from low income economic backgrounds, and teachers. Footage from the cameras also allows him to quickly tackle problems such as bullying, fighting and petty crime. 

“Our objective had never been to spy on the students,” said Sharma, in a video interview which accompanies this story. “But our objective was that these should be used as an educational tool to inculcate the value of self-discipline.” 

Security and safety

The in-school CCTV program is part of a much wider manifesto promise to cut crime and increase public safety made by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kerjiwal’s anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party in the 2015 Delhi Legislative Assembly elections. The overall initiative, when completed, will see 280,000 cameras installed in public sites across the city, including residential neighborhoods, and another 150,000 in over 720 government-administered schools. Cameras have been installed in more than 500 schools so far. 

Delhi has an extremely dubious safety record. In December 2012, it made global headlines when a young woman was gang raped and brutally assaulted on board a bus, later dying from her injuries. The case shocked the world and led to a strengthening of rape laws. In its 2015 manifesto, the Aam Aadmi Party promised to install cameras in government-run buses, at bus stops and in crowded places.

Gopal Mohan, policy advisor to Kejriwal, is the official in charge of overseeing the project. “In today’s world, technology is an important part [of fighting] different kinds of issues,” he said. “Whether it’s women’s security [or] theft, the police can’t be present everywhere, every time.” 

In 2018, Delhi recorded 262,600 crimes — up seven percent from the previous year, according to the latest government data. Several recent incidents have also raised questions about the safety of public schools. The most notable case came in 2017, when an eight-year-old boy was found dead — his throat slit — in a school bathroom in the satellite city of Gurgaon.

It is against this backdrop that Kerjiwal’s ambitious surveillance plan has been launched.

Surveillance cameras in classrooms and across campus at SHK Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya, a school in Delhi

In a June 2019 press conference, Kejriwal announced that his administration would finally begin work to fulfill its longstanding promise to keep a watchful eye on the city. A month later, he unveiled the project at SHK Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya. The main advantage of the initiative, Kejriwal said, was “children’s safety.” But, he added, “CCTV cameras will make anyone think twice before doing anything wrong.”

Two companies, India’s state-run defense giant Bharat Electronic Ltd and Technosys Security Systems Pvt. Ltd, won contracts to install cameras across Delhi. Technosys is fitting cameras in all government-administered schools. According to Gopal Mohan, the policy advisor to Kejriwal, while none of the cameras are enabled with facial recognition, the government is considering installing the capability at a later date.

A watchful eye

In addition to the school principal, parents can also gain access to an app that allows them to view their child’s classroom by registering with their child’s student identification. They can log in twice a day for five minutes at a time. School staff do not have access to the app. There are also plans to send live feeds to government officials. 

According to records, of the 1,430 students enrolled in the school, parents of at least 700 students have downloaded the app and about 225 are active users. The app is available on Android phones, but many of the families have limited incomes and cannot afford such high-end technology.

The footage from the school is stored on cloud accounts, hard disks and SD cards. Data stored on SD cards is kept for up to four days, the rest deleted after 30 days. The authorities reserve the right to save any footage needed to investigate a crime.

Sharma is thrilled with the cameras, saying that he now has “210 support staff” to help him do his job.

Sharma recalls a number of times when the footage has been especially useful. Once, a phone was stolen and the recordings showed the thief in action. On another occasion, a student fell while running on campus and broke his arm — the parents were angry, but video evidence proved that no one was at fault. It even captured one student trying to steal a camera that was filming him.

“Some children misbehave,” says Sharma. “We call them in and show them the footage and then they stop because they know they can be caught.” 

The cameras have also made staff more disciplined and punctual. “In the start you feel a bit, is this a question on my abilities?” said Suman Thukral, who teaches IT to older students. “But then you get used to it and it’s good for everyone. It’s like being on [Indian reality television game show] Bigg Boss. You forget the cameras are there and whatever is your true nature comes out ultimately — whether you’re a student or a teacher.”

At another government school in Delhi, Sarvodaya Vidyalaya No 3 in RK Puram, where wiring is being installed for approximately 250 cameras, the teachers are less sanguine about this additional oversight. One recent morning in the women’s staff room, tempers flared at the idea of constant surveillance.

“This is very harmful for a woman’s integrity and her privacy,” said one teacher, who requested not to be named. “As a woman, sometimes you adjust your sari blouse or your bra strap, the girls carry sanitary napkins to the toilet — things we’re always trying to hide from society, but they want to put that on cameras for everyone to see.” 

“They’re treating us like thieves,” continued the teacher. “Do we not teach properly? It’s the prerogative of the teacher how they run their classroom and the relationship they build with their students.”

Gunjan Chawla is program manager of technology and national security at the National Law University’s Centre for Communication Governance. She suggests that strong safeguards should be put in place before deploying CCTV. “The government doesn’t consider the right to privacy as critical,” she told Coda Story. “Kejriwal has said that children come to school to study, not to do private things.”

Delhi’s government has ploughed nearly a quarter of its annual $5.8 billion budget into education — the highest in India. Even before the installation of the cameras, the results appear to have paid off. Government schools have outperformed their more expensive private counterparts. 

Experts argue the proliferation of cameras in schools changes how children behave. “Do we really want schools that are spaces where at all times you have to be concerned about your behavior as a child?” asks Alex Beard, who writes about the future of education. “Or do we want there to be spaces in which you can learn about acting privately, where you’re not being monitored by the eyes of the virtual head teacher?”

Sanjay Srivastav, a sociology professor at the Institute of Economic Growth, says the installation of cameras in Delhi’s government-run schools is indicative of bigger societal issues. Given that such institutions usually serve students from economically disadvantaged families, he believes that their constant monitoring is connected to the class divisions that continue to run deep in Indian society. 

“The government can take certain measures when dealing with the poorer population and suggest this is what will improve results,” he said. “But that’s not necessarily improvement. What will help is better infrastructure, better teaching tools and facilities. If private schools have better results, it’s not because of CCTVs.”

Isobel Cockerell contributed reporting.