Amid Opposition Criticism, Government Tables DNA Technology Bill in Lok Sabha

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor alleged that the bill would institutionalise a "surveillance state" and suggested that a data protection law should be put in place first.

New Delhi: The DNA Technology Regulation Bill, which seeks to control the use of DNA technology for establishing the identity of a person, was introduced in the Lok Sabha on Monday amid questions being raised by opposition parties on its provisions.

A similar bill was passed in Lok Sabha in January but it could not be cleared in the Rajya Sabha. The bill had then lapsed with the dissolution of the previous Lok Sabha.

The proposed law, which has been in the making since at least 2003, is the third attempt by the government to enact a law to regulate the use of DNA technology in the country after an earlier version of the Bill had been finalised in 2015 but could not be introduced in parliament.

Opposing the introduction of the bill, Congress leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said the Bill violates fundamental rights as DNA of undertrials can be collected without court orders. Describing the draft law as “flawed”, he said there is no provision of consent on the storage of DNA data.

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor alleged that the bill would institutionalise a “surveillance state” and suggested that a data protection law should be put in place first. “You cannot put the cart before the horse,” he said.

Also read: Lok Sabha Passes DNA Technology Bill – All You Need to Know

Minister for science and technology Harsh Vardhan, who introduced the Bill, said there is “no serious substance” in the concerns raised by members. He also pointed out that several rounds of consultations have been undertaken and the measure has been pending for nearly a decade. He reminded members that a similar bill was passed by the previous Lok Sabha too after long deliberations.

The legislation seeks to establish a National DNA Data Bank and Regional DNA Data Banks and envisages that every data bank maintain indices like the crime scene index, suspects’ or undertrials’ index, offenders’ index, missing persons’ index and unknown deceased persons’ index.

The legislation also seeks to establish a DNA Regulatory Board. Every laboratory that analyses DNA samples to establish the identity of an individual has to be accredited by the board.

Under the Bill, written consent by individuals is required to collect DNA samples from them. Consent is not required for offences with a punishment of more than seven years of imprisonment or death.

It also provides for the removal of DNA profiles of suspects upon the filing of a police report or court order, and of undertrials on the basis of a court order. Profiles in the crime scene and missing persons’ index will be removed on a written request.

The government has insisted that the Bill will merely expand the “application of DNA-based forensic technologies to support and strengthen the justice delivery of the country”, activists and civil society members claim that the Centre has ignored privacy and security concerns.

Also read: Four Reasons Why India’s Controversial DNA Bill Should Be Sent to a Standing Committee

The Law Commission, which submitted the final version of the DNA-Based Technology (Use and Regulation) Bill, 2018 to the government in 2017, did not examine the Bill in light of two important privacy-related developments.

The Law Commission finished its deliberations regarding the bill by July 2017, a month before a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court ruled in Puttaswamy vs Union of India that Indians enjoy a fundamental right to privacy. In its report, the Law Commission made multiple allusions to the then-impending privacy judgement and stated that, “whether in Indian context privacy is an integral part of Article 21 of the constitution is a matter of academic debate. The issue is pending consideration before a larger bench of the Supreme Court.”

Secondly, the Law commission’s report preceded Justice Srikrishna’s report which laid down the rights of ‘data principals’ (Indian citizens), proposed the creation of a data authority to enforce the Act, and set penalties for violations by ‘data fiduciaries’.

Additionally, while the Indian government has maintained that the proposed DNA database project will purportedly cost only Rs 20 crore, analysis by The Wire demonstrates that the cost of just acquiring the DNA samples from people arrested in India on criminal charges alone could be over Rs 1,800 crore.

Another concern raised regarding DNA profiling is related to the lack of proper infrastructure and technical know-how to use it for criminal investigations in a widespread or effective manner

Civil society stakeholders have expressed concerns over the aggravation of institutional biases that are already present in the existing DNA identification. For example, the CDFD already asks for the caste of the suspect during the collection of the DNA sample.

(With inputs from PTI)