Explained: Why govt wants to bank DNA

Amitabh Sinha
The fresh clearance by the Cabinet is the third attempt by the government to enact a law to regulate the use of DNA technology in the country. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

On Monday, the Cabinet cleared the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill once again, paving the way for its reintroduction in Parliament. The Bill had been passed by Lok Sabha in January this year, but could not get the approval of Rajya Sabha. As a result, it lapsed once the tenure of the previous Lok Sabha expired last month.

The fresh clearance by the Cabinet is the third attempt by the government to enact a law to regulate the use of DNA technology in the country. An earlier version of the Bill had been finalised in 2015 but could not be introduced in Parliament. The proposed law has been in the making since at least 2003.

The purpose

The Bill seeks to create a regulatory framework for obtaining, storing and testing of DNA samples of human beings, mainly for the purposes of criminal investigations, and with the objective of establishing the identity of a person. DNA testing is already being used for a variety of purposes, such as criminal investigations, establishment of parentage, and search for missing people. The proposed law seeks to bring in a supervisory structure to oversee these practices, and frame guidelines and rules so that the DNA technology is not misused.

To achieve these objectives, the bill proposes to set up two institutional structures a DNA regulatory board, and a DNA data bank at the national level. Regional centres of the board as well as the data bank can be set up at the state level as well.

The board, which is proposed to be the main regulatory authority, would frame the rules and guidelines for DNA collection, testing and storage, while the data bank would be the repository of all DNA samples collected from various people under specified rules. The Bill proposes that testing of DNA samples can be carried out only at laboratories that are authorised to do so by the regulatory board. It also specifies the circumstances under which a person can be asked to submit DNA samples, the purposes for which such requests can be made, and the exact procedure for handling, storing and accessing these samples.

The process

According to the provisions of the proposed law, police can ask for DNA samples of the person accused of an offence to facilitate their investigation. But unless the offence is of a very serious nature, punishable by death or by imprisonment for at least seven years, the DNA sample can be obtained only on the written consent of the accused. It can be also be obtained if an authorised magistrate is satisfied that a DNA test is absolutely necessary for investigation of the crime.

People who are witness to a crime, or want to locate their missing relatives, or in similar other circumstances, can volunteer to give their DNA samples, again through written consent.

DNA samples can be collected from the objects found at the crime scene, or from the body of the accused or volunteer. The samples, collected by an authorised technician or medical practitioner, would have to be sent to an accredited laboratory for tests and analysis. The information generated from these tests would have to be mandatorily shared with the nearest DNA data bank, which in turn, would be required to share it with the national data bank.

Under the provisions, the data banks are required to store the information under one of the five indices a crime scene index, a suspect or undertrial index, an offenders index, a missing persons index, and an unknown deceased persons index. Although information from DNA can yield a lot of information about the person, the data banks are supposed to store only that information that is necessary to establish the identity of the person.

While the information in the crime scene index can be stored permanently, entries in other indices can be removed through processes prescribed.

People whose DNA samples have been collected, either from the crime scene, or through voluntary written consent, can also request the removal of their information from the index. DNA samples of people who are not suspects or undertrials cannot be matched with already stored information in the suspects/undertrial index or the offenders index.

The debate

The main debate over the proposed law has been around three issues whether the DNA technology is foolproof, whether the provisions adequately address the possibility of abuse of DNA information, and whether the privacy of the inpidual is protected.
DNA information can be extremely revelatory. It can not only establish a person s identity but also reveal a lot about physical and biological attributes of the person like eye, hair or skin colour, susceptibility to diseases, possible medical history, and possible clues to biological relatives. For years, critics of the Bill have been claiming that collecting and storing such intrusive information could lead to abuse, besides being violative of a person s privacy.

The government, on the other hand, has been arguing that since DNA tests are already happening, and frequently used as the most reliable tool to establish identity, it would be better to have regulatory safeguards so that it is carried out only in prescribed manner and by authorised personnel and institutions. The text of the Bill has undergone several changes over the years to address some of the concerns on privacy and the possibility of abuse. The government has also claimed that very limited information is proposed to be stored in the indices just 17 sets of numbers out of billions that DNA samples can reveal. These can tell nothing about the inpidual except to act as a unique identifier, it has said.