Taxi service aggregator Uber announced on February 5th that it would add an in-app panic button that would allow riders to alert local police in case of an emergency. Whether this will improve safety in any way is to be seen. However, What is clear is that police and governments across the country, who hold the ultimate responsibility for providing emergency services, have failed badly at making it easy for the public to ask for help. They have also done a terrible job of creating and enforcing a standardized display of help services.
In a study of helplines in Delhi undertaken by Multiple Action Research Group (MARG) and the UN in 2012, the most damning finding was that "Among those who have approached the police helpline, almost all have reported either a very slow response or no response at all." This appears to be a common refrain across the nation (see list at end of article). It is a huge disservice to the public and shows that the government its undertaking to protect its citizens.
Two other key findings in the MARG study were that most respondents preferred having only a single helpline, and over half the women respondents were not aware of a women's helpline.
In the National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi and Gurgaon, victims of crime and abuse have several helpline numbers to choose from. That is a problem. As the image shows, a person in Delhi alone is exposed to at least six helpline numbers, and a few others not pictured. Numbers are often displayed side-by-side, with no indication as to which one the public should use. The top sub-image, numbered 1, shows two stickers in the Metro displaying two different numbers. The labeling is confusing and makes no sense. Why would the suggestions/enquiry number be "24/7" but the police/security number not be available at all times? Image 2, taken of a New Delhi auto-rickshaw, displays three numbers, including 181 which is dedicated to women in distress. Images 3 and 4 are from different places of one Delhi ride-share van and also carry three different numbers, two of which are the same as on the auto, and a different one, 1091, which is also a women's helpline. Image 5 is from a Gurgaon police vehicle. None of them display 100, which is the nationwide number for the local police control room.
It may be true that in New Delhi, at least, all for-hire passenger vehicles display helpline numbers. However, there is no consistency in how the numbers are displayed, how they are labeled or where they are placed. Long-time residents of the NCR may have come to understand the acronyms DMRC, CISF, H.L.No, D.P.H.L, W.H.L. or W/C, but probably many have ignored them as ciphers or some type of registration codes. What about visitors or those with limited or no understanding of English, would they understand? In the Delhi Metro there are signs in Hindi about standing clear of the doors and maps in Hindi, but there are no signs about helplines in Hindi or any other Indian languages. Moreover, the numbers are displayed on the outside of passenger vehicles, but there doesn't seem to be any requirement to put them up on the inside. A look inside a vehicle from one taxi company that was compared favorably with Uber in terms of safety features displayed no safety information anywhere in the rear passenger area.
The MARG study recommended the use of a single helpline, the number 100 for emergencies. Government bodies can do much more to improve the safety of citizens by following this recommendation and also making sure that emergency calls are answered promptly and professionally. It would also help the public to issue guidelines about the type and placement of emergency contact information.
Reporting and fact-gathering for this story was limited principally to Delhi and Gurgaon. If you have examples from other cities or towns, and especially if you know of local governments that are doing a very good job with implementing and communicating about helplines, please share (preferably with a link) by leaving a comment.
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