Cabinet clears DNA database on crime

Bill allows storage but includes safeguards

By G.S. Mudur
  • Published 5.07.18

New Delhi: The Union cabinet on Wednesday approved a bill to regulate the use of DNA for criminal investigation and justice delivery, allowing the storage of genetic information of select persons but providing safeguards against its misuse.

A cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill 2018 that seeks to expand the use of DNA to help solve crimes, identify missing persons and determine biological relationships between individuals.

The bill provides for mandatory accreditation and regulation of DNA laboratories to ensure that DNA test results are reliable and that the data are protected from misuse from the perspective of citizens' privacy, the Union science and technology ministry said.

Scientists who had helped draft the bill say expanding the use of DNA in criminal investigations could lead to higher conviction rates, especially in cases of murder, rape or human trafficking, among other crimes involving the human body.

India's latest compilation of crime statistics for the year 2016 from the National Crime Records Bureau suggests that the conviction rate for rapes is 25 per cent. The NCRB's 2016 statistics have documented over 300,000 crimes directly affecting people or property but conviction rates remain at about 30 per cent. Only a small proportion of these crimes are at present investigated through DNA testing, the science ministry said.

"We rely on DNA for two things - it helps establish beyond doubt the biological identity of an individual and it helps beyond doubt to determine whether there is any biological relationship between two persons," said Jayaraman Gowrishankar, former director and now an Indian National Science Academy senior scientist at the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics in Hyderabad.

The bill seeks to authorise and regulate the collection and storage of DNA information from a limited category of individuals "in conflict with the law" for cognisable offences under criminal laws, according to scientists familiar with an earlier version of the bill.

"For such categories of individuals, the law already permits the collection and retention of information such as their fingerprints, personal belongings, and property with appropriate judicial warrants," said Madhusudan Reddy Nandineni, group leader for DNA fingerprinting services at the CDFD.

"The retention of DNA profiles in a database will help apprehend repeat offenders and is in line with similar practices in the developed countries," Nandineni said.

Specialists in DNA fingerprinting say the reliability of DNA for identification is likely to help increase conviction rates. Two suspects might have the same shoe size, but never the same DNA. Where fingerprints are unavailable, DNA will help establish identity.

India's department of biotechnology under the science ministry helped draft the bill that scientists point out has been in the making for nearly 15 years through multiple discussions across government departments and meetings with legal and scientific experts.

Scientists say a dataset of only 17 positions in the DNA of an individual is sufficient to identify an individual and does not provide any other information about the individual's biological characteristics or traits.

"The information in the 17 DNA positions uniquely identifies an individual, his or her gender, and relationship with biological relatives," Gowrishankar said. "It provides absolutely no information about age, race, behaviour, or body or health features or susceptibility to diseases," Gowrishankar said.

Nandineni said the bill's broad objectives were to regulate the quality of DNA laboratories to ensure reliable results, apprehend repeat offenders and protect against privacy infringement.

The bill's provisions also enable cross-matching between persons who have been reported missing and identifying dead bodies, including victims of mass disasters.