The proposed Human DNA Profiling Bill, 2015, could not be finalised in time to be introduced in Parliament’s Monsoon Session. After that, owing to the intense debate generated by the Bill in the past few weeks, the government extended the deadline for comments and suggestions. The deadline ran out on Tuesday.
The Proposed Law
Almost everyone is familiar with the double-helix structure of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. The two strands of small molecules twisted around each other carry biological information that is unique to every individual. Even a small part of this information can be used to uniquely identify a human being, except in the case of identical twins who have almost the same DNA sequence. DNA, in that sense, is similar to fingerprints or iris scans, but far more reliable and accurate. Also, it can be extracted from any part of the body, blood, bones or even a strand of hair, or clothing.
Information from two DNA samples can be matched to establish whether they belong to the same individual. Since the DNA of a person is a mix of the DNA of the parents, it is also the most accurate way of establishing parentage and biological relationships with immediate kin. DNA technology was used to establish that Congress leader N D Tiwari was the biological father of a person who had filed a paternity suit against him. It is widely used as a tool in criminal investigation.
The objective of the DNA Profiling Bill, 2015, is to establish a regulatory framework for DNA testing, and setting standards and guidelines for laboratories doing these tests.
The Way It Will Work
DNA testing is already in use. The proposed law will bring under legal regulation every activity relating to testing, storage and matching of DNA profiles.
The Bill seeks to create two new bodies — a DNA Profiling Board that will act as the regulator, and supervise all activities relating to testing, storage and matching of DNA samples, and a DNA Data Bank, both at the national level and in the states.
All existing and new DNA labs will have to seek accreditation from the Board. DNA profiles will have to be stored in the data bank. All regional or state-level data banks will share information with the national bank.
DNA samples of all convicted criminals and chargesheeted individuals will be stored in the data banks. Samples collected from crime scenes will be stored too. In all other cases, like those to settle parentage, DNA samples can be only collected by consent. A convicted person can request DNA matching to help prove his innocence.
Volunteers will also be asked to submit DNA samples to make the data bank more robust, and to generate the statistical parameters for establishing matches.
If a DNA sample collected from a crime scene matches with a profile in the database, it will become easier for law enforcement authorities to track down the suspect. It will also identify repeat offenders.
While there is no argument with the overall objectives of the Bill — law enforcement, identification of missing persons, identification of dead bodies in disasters and accidents — objections have been raised against some of its provisions, on several grounds.
PRIVACY: DNA information can reveal details such as a person’s looks, eye colour or skin colour, as well as more intrusive information such as allergies, susceptibility to diseases, etc. Critics say the Bill does not have adequate safeguards against the collection and storage of such information, and its misuse. It provides for deletion of DNA information in certain cases, for example, when a missing child has been found — but has no provision for informing the person that the profile has been deleted. The Bill does not say who can access the database, and does not provide a guarantee that it would not be used for anything other than the specified purpose.
TECHNOLOGY: Critics contend that DNA matching technology is not entirely foolproof, and that there are chances, even if very low, of erroneous results.
UTILITY: It has been argued that adding larger numbers of entries to the data bank does not lead to better conviction rates. In the UK, convictions dropped in the year in which the most DNA profiles were created. DNA profiles, critics say, should be created only in cases of serious crimes.
J Gowrishankar of the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFC), Hyderabad, says apprehensions of data misuse and privacy violations were more likely to come true in the absence of regulation. Since DNA testing is already happening, it is better to have oversight over it. The most vocal critics have been consulted, and their concerns addressed, he says.
PRIVACY: Very limited information is proposed to be stored, just 17 sets of numbers out of billions, that can tell nothing about the individual except to act as a unique identifier. DNA will be collected from a very small proportion of people, mainly those “in conflict of law”. An Aadhaar-like project to create a DNA profile of everyone is not proposed. Every care has been taken to prevent misuse of data.
TECHNOLOGY: Except in the case of identical twins, there is no doubt over the reliability of DNA fingerprinting as a tool to identify human beings, say partisans of the Bill.
UTILITY: We need to move from eyewitness evidence to forensic evidence, of which DNA is an integral part. Currently, we do not have the resources to do more than 1,000 DNA tests in a year. Based on the government’s crime figures, it is estimated that DNA testing could be of use in almost 100,000 cases. The proposed law would help create the infrastructure, including trained manpower, to facilitate this.