You’re reading it here first: The drones the police flew over farmers protesting against the recently enacted farm laws were illegal — their use was never authorised by the Civil Aviation Ministry, or the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), both entities which regulate drone use in the country, RTIs filed by MediaNama revealed. It’s a worrying example of the amount of discretion available to on-ground police personnel — especially when it’s about using tech to carry out mass surveillance.
As the protests against the farm laws broke out in November last year, and as farmers started their march towards Delhi, the police had deployed drones to constantly monitor the situation. Both Delhi and Haryana Police were present at the protests. It isn’t clear which police force deployed these drones. We have reached out to both departments for more details. Multiple people reporting from the ground had shared visuals of these drones:
At Singhu border …
Heavy police deployment of at the Singhu border – Delhi-Haryana border – in anticipation of farmer's 'Delhi-Chalo' protests
— Supriya Bhardwaj (@Supriya23bh) November 26, 2020
— ANI (@ANI) November 26, 2020
The police’s arbitrary drone flights
We filed the RTI in December, with the Civil Aviation Ministry, and the DGCA, asking for a list of all the organisations they had allowed to fly drones between October and December 2020, along with a copy of the authorisation letters issued to these organisations.
In response to the RTI, the Civil Aviation Ministry said it had exempted the following organisations to deploy drones during that time period. As is evident, no police force was allowed by the Civil Aviation Ministry to deploy drones:
- Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi (IGRUA)
- Odisha Mining Corporation Ltd. (OMC)
- National Capital Region Transport Corporation (NCRTC)
- Global Konnect Aviation Services Pvt. Ltd.
- National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC)
- CEPT University
- International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)
A copy of the authorisation letters given to these organisations can be accessed here.
The DGCA revealed that between October and December 2020, it had issued just one authorisation letter — to the Survey of India, presumably to carry out the Svamitva scheme, which is an ambitious large scale land mapping initiative of the Indian government. However, the regulator refused to give out a copy of the authorisation letter saying that it is “Third party information”, and is therefore exempted from disclosure under the RTI Act.
A copy of the DGCA’s response is here.
How drones take flight in India, on paper
As per current drone rules, only drones compliant with a standard called “no permission, no take off” (NPNT) are allowed to fly in the Indian airspace. NPNT is essentially an automated green signal without which drones aren’t authorised to fly. It is mandatory to obtain an authorisation from the government to fly a drone.
However, a portal called Digital Sky, which is supposed to handle this automated authorisation, is far from being ready — causing a major roadblock in offering automatic authorisations to NPNT compliant drones.
As a stop gap measure then, the Civil Aviation Ministry, and the DGCA offer conditional exemptions to organisations — manually — to fly their drones. It is worth noting that, on paper, flying drones without obtaining this conditional exemption is illegal in India. Here’s Amber Dubey, joint secretary at the Civil Aviation Ministry explaining conditional exemptions:
“[Deployment of drones for] All this, locusts, Svamitva [a large scale government drone survey program], hundreds of drones have flown, and all of them have flown via the exemption route. From our side, it’s a very streamlined system at the Ministry and DGCA, where just through emails — we don’t even want you to come to office, we don’t want you to send us any letters with ₹30 or a speed post, do it free of cost as it comes with no application fee. Just apply to the Ministry, follow a few forms and there are nodal officers in MoCA, there are nodal officers in DGCA who help you streamline it. There are various ways through which we are trying that the show must go on — the drone show will not stop just because Digital Sky is not working.” — Amber Dubey, joint secretary, Civil Aviation Ministry (he said this in December during a call with industry representatives)
Are there any exemptions? All drones, except those owned and operated by the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), Aviation Research Centre (ARC), and central intelligence agencies, are supposed to obtain a conditional exemption from the government before deployment.
Why this is concerning
Since the government never allowed these drones to fly, we don’t know what types of drones these were, and what they were capable of — suggesting a lack of transparency in the entire process. We don’t even know if the police itself owned these drones, or if it hired them from a private company; the Delhi Police has previously done so on at least two occasions — during Delhi assembly elections, and the riots that broke out in the national capital in 2020. In case of the latter, drones will have to be returned to respective companies, which is highly problematic since those companies could have access to the footage the police recorded.
MediaNama has prepared an exhaustive guide to the drone industry in India, encompassing regulations, use cases, concerns around privacy and surveillance, and the way forward for the industry. The guide is available here.