Why India is rooting for its DNA identification Act
[Nature India Special Volume: Biotechnology — An agent for sustainable socio-economic transformation]
doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.47 Published online 18 April 2016In 2006, the authors, from the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD) in Hyderabad were invited by the Bangladesh Government to offer training to their personnel in DNA profiling technologies for human identification and to assist in establishing the first such laboratory in Dhaka. Eight years later, Bangladesh had enacted a law to enable DNA profiling applications for criminal and civil investigations. India, however, is yet to have an Act of its own, though a Bill for the purpose is in the works by the Department of Biotechnology for introduction in Parliament.
The value of DNA profiling for individual identification is so well recognised by the scientific community that any argument one makes in support of passage of the DNA Bill in India will be tantamount to preaching to the choir1. As currently practised, the technology is not only very mature but also highly accurate, to the extent that it is often referred to as setting the gold standard in all of forensic science2. Since 1994, when the UK was the first to pass its law, many other nations have enacted their own. The list includes countries such as USA, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, South Korea, and Germany, with substantial benefits accruing to all of them in terms of solving violent crimes. Similar laws have also been enacted by Algeria, Botswana, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Namibia, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Uruguay, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. The law for enabling DNA identification has been passed by Parliaments of more than sixty nations around the world. There are two major goals commonly sought to be achieved with DNA Acts. The first is enforcement of standards for performance of DNA profiling in and reporting of data by accredited laboratories. This goal is somewhat unexceptionable and indeed required for achieving uniformity to enable the exchange of data across territorial jurisdictions so as to bring international criminals to justice. The second purpose of these Acts is to establish a DNA Data Bank for assisting in identification of repeat and serial criminal offenders. However, in this regard, some concerns have been raised related to the possibility of invasion or breach of individual privacy rights. In other words, will the likelihood of Government becoming Big Brother increase when DNA Data Banks are set up? Such concerns have been addressed and allayed on several counts in other countries that have passed their own DNA Acts earlier. First, the DNA profiles to be stored are not for an entire population but for specified categories of individuals (representing perhaps one percent of the total) — those in conflict with the law, such as convicts and suspects of major crimes, and those likely to benefit by technology, such as relatives of missing persons (so that their DNA profiles can be compared with profiles of unidentified deceased individuals). In all cases, other than convicts and suspects, DNA profiles will be obtained and stored only with written consent. The second and important reason for this expression of confidence against privacy concerns is that DNA markers for human identification have been deliberately so chosen as to reveal nothing about an individual’s characteristics or traits3. They are, hence, also referred to as neutral markers. Even as DNA profiling technologies change in future, this feature — that the markers for identification are neutral — will remain as an inalienable one. The Acts also provide for substantial penalties, including imprisonment for misuse or unauthorised use of samples collected, or data generated or stored in connection with DNA profiling for human identification. In this context, however, it is worth noting that whereas DNA profile data are from neutral markers, the samples themselves are more prone to misuse and to identify theft (because one can, with today’s technology, determine the complete genome sequence of an individual from minuscule biological samples). Nevertheless, samples obtained for DNA profiling are not the only or even the major potential culprits in this regard, since biological samples collected by medical laboratories around the country for diagnostic tests would outnumber those for DNA-based identification by at least a thousand-fold. Historically, the first technology (from the era of 1980s and 90s) to be employed in DNA profiling for individual identification had involved slab gel electrophoresis, Southern blot hybridisation, and detection of products with the use of radioactive chemicals4. Today’s technology involves capillary electrophoresis, polymerase chain reactions and detection of products by non-radioactive fluorophore-based approaches. For the future, additional new and evolving technologies are being explored and implemented that would be useful for expanded or niche applications: these include the use of single nucleotide polymorphisms (which might have advantages over the existing technology when the biological samples to be tested are very old, degraded, or contaminated) and of next-generation-sequencing, especially with crime-scene samples to infer the phenotypic traits of an unknown assailant (such as race, eye or hair colour)5, 6. Of course, one would be naive to assume that the enactment of a DNA Bill for India will serve as a panacea for all ills and deficiencies of its forensic investigation capabilities, let alone of its criminal justice delivery system. Two ratios will offer a glimpse of the magnitude of our problem: the number of cases in which DNA profiling is being currently undertaken is less than two percent of that in which it is needed; and the sum total of all cases subjected to DNA profiling in the last 20 years is roughly 0.05 percent of that in a country such as the USA (after adjusting for size of the two populations). Lack of adequate finances is a simple but insufficient explanation, especially for a nation that projects itself as being on the threshold of modernization, as a ‘shining’ state. It is estimated that the annual additional cost for implementing DNA testing for forensic investigations in full measure across the country is about 900 million rupees, i.e. around 14 million US dollars. Thus, the fact is that the Indian system for criminal forensic investigations and policing today is riddled with inefficiencies, archaic rules and practices, lack of professionalism and even integrity, and an absence of a top-down approach for plan formulation and implementation which is most necessary in the present situation. We hope that the Indian DNA Identification Act will provide an impetus to shaking up the system so that forensic investigators, police personnel and officers of the judiciary are all sufficiently educated and motivated to deliver as per international norms. We cite just one example of a systemic failure here, which would have been farcical were it not true. Law enforcement authorities have been unable to confirm the identity of a young man, who is believed to be the same as one who had jumped parole nine years ago after being convicted and imprisoned for the rape of a foreign national, since no identification records of the convict are now traceable. The convict’s father himself, formerly a top-ranking police officer, has declined consent to provide a DNA sample to establish (or exclude) paternity7. In such a situation, one is left to wonder how far the country may need to travel to ensure that its rule of law exists, not on paper alone, for uniform application. In late 2012 and 2013, Bangladesh suffered two horrendous workplace disasters (fire in a garment factory and collapse of a commercial building), in which more than 1200 people died. Bodies of many victims had been charred beyond recognition, and compensation claims arising from both accidents were also predicated on furnishing of kinship evidence. It is likely that these tragedies provided a chance for the country’s DNA Act to be drafted and passed shortly thereafter. One does hope that India also passes its own Act soon, without need for the trigger of similar tragic events to catalyse the process.
*The authors are staff scientists at the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting & Diagnostics, Hyderabad, India.