It is important that state-of-the-art technologies are used in the criminal justice system, but this must be done without infringing constitutional rights. That is the key message of a report by a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science, Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change. The committee has underlined that the government must assuage apprehensions over the use of the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Bill, 2019, including those related to the creation of a national database of genetic profiles gathered at crime scenes. Its report, tabled in Parliament on Wednesday, points to the need for creating “an enabling ecosystem to ensure that such profiling is done according to the letter and spirit of the Constitution”. That will require a thorough deliberation in Parliament on a range of issues.
Flakes of skin, strands of hair, drops of blood and saliva contain genetic material that is unique to an individual. Prosecution agencies in several parts of the world use such information to detect crime. But all footprints at a crime scene might not be of those associated with the incident. There is apprehension, therefore, that the DNA repository proposed by the Bill could end up bundling information of people who have nothing to do with the crime being investigated. Such concerns are not unfounded given the lack of infrastructure for conducting DNA tests in the country — as the committee notes, the labs in the country can fulfil only 2-3 per cent of the country’s DNA profiling requirement. In fact, in Rajiv Singh v. State of Bihar (2011), the Supreme Court had dismissed improperly analysed DNA evidence.
One of the longstanding defects of India’s criminal justice system is the lack of legal aid systems to help both victims and accused, especially those from marginalised sections of society. A growing body of literature has shown that most people charged with criminal offences are not aware of their rights. This deficit is likely to be telling when a sophisticated technology, such as DNA profiling, is deployed to establish crime. The effective and just use of this technology will require educating a range of criminal justice functionaries — police, lawyers, magistrates. As the country’s lawmakers give final shape to the DNA Technology Bill, they will do well to remember Justice O Chinnappa Reddy’s remarks in the SC’s 1981 verdict in Malak Singh v State of Punjab, which the court quoted in the privacy judgment of 2018: “Organised crime cannot be successfully fought without a close watch of suspects. But surveillance may… infringe the fundamental right to personal liberty… That cannot be permitted.”