Lahore Safe City Project: Can few thousand cameras secure us?

Lahore Safe City Project Cameras

A magnificent picture may well be worth a thousand words, but too many words also can lead to chaos and unfulfilled expectations. The Lahore Safe City Project, established under a 2015 ordinance, was meant to ensure establishment, development and maintenance of an integrated command, control and communication system (PPIC3) for police in the main cities of the province in the name of public safety.

The concept was meant to return security and quality of life to today’s congested cities through the use of technology, infrastructure, personnel, and processes.

The project — conceived in 2011 by the Capital City Police as “The Safe Lahore Project” — was supposed to be completed within the year and equip Lahore police with advanced monitoring and surveillance system.

Six high-quality CCTVs were installed to provide a round-the-clock operation supervised from a digital control room at the New Ravi Bridge. But everything came to a standstill after the transfers of former CCPO Muhammad Aslam Tareen, former DIG Operations Rao Sardar Ali Khan, and SSP Operations Muhammad Faisal Rana, who launched the project, secured donations and implemented the first phase. Subsequent police authorities failed to take it seriously.

The Lahore Safe City Project initiative was modeled after the controversial Islamabad Safe City Project, which was initiated by the PPP-led government in 2009 and spearheaded by the interior ministry headed by Rehman Malik.

Law enforcement agencies were equipped with a computer-aided dispatch, facial recognition, and vehicle management systems. That project was challenged in the Supreme Court and Malik faced corruption charges after costs suspiciously rose to PKR 11 billion.

In 2012, a three-member bench deemed the project null and directed the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to take action. But the NAB failed to probe or act. After the PML-N had come to power, the project was renegotiated with the Chinese company Huawei.

However, 1,800 surveillance cameras were installed across the federal capital which are operational today. The project’s command and control center in Islamabad was established in a bomb-proof building at H-11, which is monitoring important buildings, entry and exit points, roads, commercial centers and a sizable portion of the city’s residential areas.

The Islamabad command center spreads over 2,009 square meters, and all cameras connected to it require 500 kilometers of fiber-optic cables and are operated through a 4G network.

During the completion of Islamabad Safe City Project, the PML-N, which had considered allowing a Turkish company take on the project, opted to replicate the experience and knowledge of the federal initiative in the provincial capital of Punjab.

Huawei to install cameras for the Lahore Safe City Project

The Punjab Safe Cities Authority Ordinance 2015 was promulgated mid-year to provide for the establishment of Punjab Safe Cities Authority. But that project ground to a halt until May 20 of this year when the Punjab government awarded a contract to Huawei for installing 8,023 high-tech IP NV surveillance cameras in Lahore under the Lahore Safe City Project.

Talking to the Media men, in the launching ceremony, the Punjab Chief Minister Mian Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif Said,

“We went through an immaculate bidding process which was participated by the companies like Motorola, ZTE, and Huawei. After very tense negotiations, we selected the lowest bidder Huawei for awarding the Lahore Safe City Project.”

Lahore Safe City Project is bigger than the similar project in Islamabad

He further mentioned that Punjab Safe City Project is four times larger than Islamabad Safe City Project, however, the cost of Lahore Safe City Project is $ 40 million lesser.

For this, the two entities signed a memorandum of understanding. “There was a single bidder for the PKR 16 billion contract,” said Akbar Nasir, chief operating officer of the Punjab Safe City Authority contrary to the CM’s stance who believes that as many as three companies participated in the bidding process.

“As per rules, you cannot negotiate with a single bidder. However, the company voluntarily reduced the bid to PKR 12 billion. So we have saved PKR 4 billion from the national exchequer, and which is a worth highlighting fact. That includes the coverage of public institutions, essential infrastructure, public roads, crime hotspots, VIP routes, entry and exit points and public places,” Nasir said.

“Under the Lahore Safe City Project, the scanners will be installed at entrances and exits of Lahore, and satellite imagery will also be used in case of emergency. All the important spots will be monitored at a central control room, which will be operational in October this year,” he added.

The system will have the capability to keep a record of voice conversations for three years. Moreover, evidence record will be saved for seven years. A 30 days data record will be maintained under the umbrella of the Lahore Safe City Project.

However, Abdullah Malik, president of Pakistan Civil Society Network (CSN) Lahore, says obstacles remain. “The project has faced a one-year delay already, and the claim to make it operational in October 2016 is just a joke,” Malik said.

“If Islamabad Safe City Project was completed in two years with 1,800 cameras installed, how is the Lahore Safe City Project going to be started in May with 8,023 high-tech IP NV cameras installed at 2,000 locations [and this} will take less than three years? All they are going to do is to install a few cameras on the Moharram procession route and then advertising from the “saved” 4 billion rupees of its completion.” he said.

But the authority insists that a central control room already has been established at Qurban Lines, Lahore, with an integrated command and communications system.

This insistence makes it perfectly reasonable to ask how this control room could already have such advanced features when the memorandum of understanding was signed only a few weeks earlier — and not a single camera is in place.

At this point, the authority has more managers than workers. It seriously lacks when it comes to much-needed highly technical human resources. So, the project looks more like a bureaucratic quagmire in which decisions will take months and implementation years. Consider, there also are three important bodies in play; the first is the Authority Itself.

As per the ordinance, the chief minister shall be the chairperson of the authority. He nominated the vice president.

Members are one MNA, three MPAs including at least one woman, the Chief Secretary, the Inspector General of Police, secretaries of the Home and Finance departments, the Punjab Information Technology Board chairperson, heads of district police of the cities to which the Act shall apply. Three eminent persons (including at least one woman from the general public or academia having knowledge of and exposure to law enforcement or other related information technology based projects) and the Authority’s managing director.

The second body is the Executive Committee, which has been constituted to steer and manage projects undertaken by the Authority, and ensure coordination with other authorities. The Chief Secretary Punjab heads it.

Members are Home Secretary Punjab, Provincial Police Officer Punjab, Chairman Planning and Development Board Punjab, Finance Secretary Punjab, Communication & Works Secretary Punjab, Chairman Punjab IT Board, the Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer.

Then there is the steering committee for the successful execution of the project. Chaired by Provincial Police Officer Punjab, it consists of a Chief Operating Officer, Managing Director, heads of District Police of the cities to which the Act applies, a representative of the Home Department, a representative of the Finance Department, a representative of the Planning and Development Department, a representative of the Communication and Works Department and a representative of the Punjab Information Technology Board.

The complex structures of these bodies naturally impede fast decision-making. The authority had individuals handling administration, implementation, finance, contracts, procurement, systems integration, accounts, human relations, logistics, and finance — along with a communication engineer and an associate officer — in November 2015. 

It added four office assistants, seven dispatch riders, ten drivers, ten junior clerks and 16 watchmen and sweepers in March.

The recruitment of 385 police communication specialists/communications officers has been completed recently. These officers will be responsible for receiving and processing requests/calls for police and emergency response via digital communication.

They also will coordinate, decide and dispatch police and other emergency resources through software/applications and audio-video communications. They will serve as a conduit between police and the public and interact in emergency and crisis situations.

Safe City Projects have also been planned for the other provinces

Safe City projects have also been scheduled for Quetta and Gwadar in Balochistan at a cost of PKR 10 billion. The provincial government already has approved PKR 3 billion for the purchase of systems and equipment. Plans call for 1,400 security and vigilance cameras to be installed at critical points of Quetta while 465 cameras would be installed at 136 places in and around Gwadar.

While the Punjab Chief Minister has announced Dolphin Force for Bahawalpur and Safe City Projects for Multan, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi, and Faisalabad, experts believe the already completed Islamabad Safe City Project and the in-process Lahore Safe City Project to be problematic.

They say the Safe City concept must go beyond the installation of gadgets and tools, with success coming only as a result of a change in culture. As if to support their logic, police failed to react in a professional manner — despite having a supposedly fully functional command and control center — after crowds entered the Red Zone during Qadri’s memorial and PTI’s sit-in.

Cameras surely could have helped police monitor the movements of the group that entered the Red Zone. But sources within the police department revealed that Islamabad officials seldom visit the command and control center, choosing to rely on televised news coverage from the comfort of their respective offices.

Such advanced optics are useless if no official will come to the control room to monitor the situation. It takes humans making informed decisions based upon the information that these advanced tools and gadgets provide. Without this order, the ever-mounting billions of rupees once again will have been spent in the name of a short-changed public sector.

Consider a billions-rupees-project to place 8,023 cameras at 2,000 key locations around a city in which a command and control center provides every possible ounce of information about real-time situations. In this hypothetical scenario, Camera # 800 shows a car striking a pedestrian.

But if no one within the control center takes notice or identifies the car’s registration plate, the driver who should have been accountable will get away. And the luster of such a state-of-the-art command and control system certainly is dulled.

Hong Kong has faced frequent public demonstrations and events that require police monitoring. There, Police was asked to manage 7,529 public order events in 2012, and video technology was used for crowd management.

Mirza Abdul Quddos Baig, a police DSP, and expert in community policing says, “People are the key to safe cities” … and “safe cities imply smart citizens. Besides, as the public becomes more connected with smartphones and 3G/4G access, more information shall come into law enforcement from the public, and then the public’s expectations for governmental services and safety shall increase.”

Such a cultural shift must be inculcated in Pakistanis too, Qadri-lovers recently staged an unruly protest in the federal capital and damaged Safe City security and surveillance cameras installed at important boulevards.

It cost another billion rupees to repair the damage to these optics and metro stations. The ire-and-repair cycle is the culture that lies within. Stable countries become safer because of their citizens. Installations are not vulnerable when residents value and protect them as public property. But in Pakistan, broken traffic lights are an all-too-common sight after even very short processions.

Yes, we can build beautiful motorways and huge airports. We are building metros and Green Line trains. We have new solar and amusement parks, but we also are creatures of habit. We have not learned to take responsibility to save and preserve all of these beautiful creations.

And we have not yet learned to view our national wealth as our own. So how can we ever expect our cities to become safer without us? Yes, the cameras are watching. How will they see you?

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