New Delhi: The Modi government Monday withdrew from Lok Sabha the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill 2019, which was under formulation by the Ministry of Science and Technology’s Department of Biotechnology for nearly a decade.
According to officials in the science ministry, the government withdrew the bill because its clauses have broadly been covered in The Criminal Procedure (Identification) Act 2022, which was notified by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
However, senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha MP Jairam Ramesh tweeted Tuesday that the government had withdrawn the bill to avoid putting in place the “elaborate safeguards” recommended by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment & Forests, and “decided to just ignore it after having pressed for early submission of its report”. Ramesh is chairman of this standing committee, which had presented its recommendations on the bill to the Rajya Sabha in the form of a report in February 2021.
DNA refers to deoxyribonucleic acid, a blueprint of all living forms that encodes information allowing the cells of an organism to grow and function. Every individual has a unique DNA blueprint, making it a reliable means of identification and establishment of biological relationships between individuals. This can be done by analysing hair, blood or semen samples.
The purpose of the DNA Technology Regulation Bill was to establish a legal framework that allows authorities to collect and bank DNA samples to determine the identity of an individual during criminal investigations as well as in civil matters such as paternity suits. It proposed the setting up of a ‘National DNA Data Bank’ and ‘Regional DNA Data Banks’ to maintain data from crime scenes, of suspects, undertrials, relatives of missing persons, as well as unidentified dead bodies.
The bill also provides for the establishment of a ‘DNA Regulatory Board’ to supervise DNA data banks and DNA laboratories, advise state and central governments on all issues related to setting up such laboratories or data banks, and grant accreditation to DNA labs.
The standing committee’s recommendations had included making the proposed statutory board independent, protecting the privacy of the individuals whose data would be collected, and holding authorities liable for any misuse or leak of this data.
According to the panel’s 2021 report, DNA testing is currently being done on an extremely limited scale in India, with just around 30-40 DNA experts in 15-18 laboratories taking up fewer than 3,000 cases per year, which represent 2-3 per cent of the total requirement. However, the standards of the laboratories are not monitored or regulated.
From Lok Sabha to standing committee
The DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill 2019 was first introduced in the Lok Sabha in August 2018 by then science and technology minister Harsh Vardhan, but lapsed.
It was again introduced in Lok Sabha in July 2019, and referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment & Forests in October that year. At the time of its introduction, experts had raised concerns regarding the potential for misuse and breach of privacy.
The standing committee submitted its recommendations regarding the bill in February 2021.
“The Bill had been examined in detail by the S&T Standing Committee which had suggested a number of important amendments to ensure that the provisions in the Bill were not misused or abused,” Jairam Ramesh tweeted Monday.
He added: “The fears of the critics of the govt’s DNA Bill now stand fully justified (sic).”
Parliamentary panel’s concerns
The parliamentary standing committee, in its report submitted to the Rajya Sabha in 2021, stated that it had heard the views of non-official expert witnesses on the bill. They included Dr Shambhavi Naik, fellow, Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru, Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation, Arghya Sengupta, founder, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy among others.
Opinions of researchers from the Gujarat Forensic Sciences University (GFSU), Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Mohali and the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting & Diagnostics (CDFD), Hyderabad, were also considered.
In its report, the committee stated that a number of members expressed concern about the misuse of DNA technology to target different segments of society based on factors like religion, caste or political views.
The committee recommended creating an ecosystem that ensures that DNA profiling is done in a manner that is fully consistent with the spirit of various Supreme Court judgments and the Constitution.
It also underlined the need for a system that enables the legal system to understand the limitations of DNA technology, identify its appropriate use and minimise errors.
“There has been very little research and academic work in the country on the use of scientific evidence in courts. As a result, courts have routinely accepted evidence that is not based on thorough scientific rigour,” the panel noted in its report.
One of the key points the committee repeatedly highlighted in its report is the need for the statutory board to be independent and not comprise almost wholly of serving government officials. This, the report said, was a glaring shortcoming of the bill.
The bill recommended the creation of a ‘crime scene index’ — an inventory of all DNA samples found at a crime scene. However, the parliamentary committee noted that a national databank of crime scene DNA profiles puts virtually everyone’s DNA data at risk since DNA is left at the ‘crime scene’ before and after the crime by several persons who may have nothing to do with it.
The committee suggested that crime scene DNA profiles be used in investigation and trial but not be put in a data bank. Moreover, contrary to what was proposed in the bill, the data should be destroyed within 30 days if the case concludes with an acquittal, it recommended.
If there is a conviction, only the DNA profile of the convict could be included in the data bank, the committee suggested. Some members also felt that the ‘crime scene index’ was unnecessary.
The committee also recommended against the creation of regional DNA data banks and suggested that only a national data bank be maintained as the former would “create more vulnerability to the integrity and security of the entire system”.
It also advised that the bill specify that the written consent of a missing person’s relative is taken in case DNA samples are required to aid in the search. It further recommended additional safeguards that would prevent a magistrate from arbitrarily ordering the collection of DNA samples in criminal cases.
The panel also flagged ‘vague’ clauses and recommended modifications that could prevent misuse of DNA data by authorities.
The bill proposed action against authorities if they “willfully” misused the data. However, to further ensure the privacy and security of individuals, the standing committee said that even negligent or reckless behaviour can cause irreparable damage to the information stored, and every person who has access to DNA profiles acknowledged as sensitive personal data should be strictly liable.
DNA profiling and its origins
The DNA profiling method was first developed in 1985, specifically for forensic use. It was first used in a rape and murder investigation of two teenage girls — Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth — near Leicestershire in the UK, in the 1980s.
Samples from over 4,800 local men were collected for the case. While the exercise itself did not lead to a match, the killer was reportedly overheard boasting about how he’d got his friend to provide a DNA sample in his place — which helped in solving the crime.
DNA profiling can be especially helpful in cold cases or old unsolved crimes. It can also help quickly identify repeat offenders, by comparing samples from the crime scene to a DNA database.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)