Forensic DNA is a quick way to bring rapists to justice. But awareness and testing levels are low in India

Just days before India went into a nationwide lockdown in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, four men convicted for raping a 23-year-old medical student in a moving bus were finally brought to justice, seven years after the brutal assault. While the Nirbhaya incident shook our collective conscience, the fact remains that one rape is still reported every 15 minutes in our country and only a fourth of all cases result in conviction.

In recent times, while investigative agencies from different states have shown encouraging signs by solving heinous crimes based on quality forensic DNA casework, India conducts a little over 20,000 DNA tests in a year – a negligible figure for a country with a population of over 1.3 billion. It seems the road to justice is not the same for all.

With lockdowns, curfews, and a stretched police force, the pandemic has added another layer of complexity to the issue. Reduced mobility, confinement within the household and lack of social connectivity during the outbreak may have suppressed the number of reported incidents initially. But we’re now back to witnessing a surge in the number of rapes with the gradual lifting of the lockdown.

It has therefore become critical for India’s criminal justice system to quickly gear up with infrastructure and training for proper use of forensic DNA technology, especially in rape cases. Not only will this help bring swift justice, it will also act as a strong deterrent by putting the fear of law in the minds of sexual predators.

One of the biggest barriers to justice is the delay in filing of FIRs in rape cases and subsequent hold-ups in investigations. Long delays make it difficult for investigators to procure reliable scientific evidence against the accused. Since it is an offence against the body, medical forensic evaluation plays an important role. With passing time, physical injuries heal up, destroying the evidence and resulting in acquittal of the offender.

A rape survivor’s body is like a crime scene, and it must be protected from any contamination. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to save crucial DNA evidence by collecting samples as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, the survivor or her family are usually not aware of the value of DNA evidence and unknowingly wash and clean off her body immediately after the assault. Not only does it amount to loss of crucial evidence, it also lowers her confidence to fight back. Add to that the fear of losing reputation, the burden of social stigma, and future consequences to bear, the reporting of such crimes and their due investigation is often held back.

Law enforcement is a continuous process from the time a crime is reported till the criminal is prosecuted and punished. This is a tedious process involving various stages such as investigation, prosecution, trial and judicial verdict. The survivor needs to be facilitated at all these stages effectively. Never-ending trials have also led to scenarios where the survivor is forced to compromise with the accused outside court due to the social pressure, thereby frustrating the whole purpose of law.

While India’s overall forensic DNA testing volumes remain low, casework based on this technology has doubled over the last two years owing to rising awareness levels. However, a lot more needs to be done. For successful investigations, we must take care of two things – preserve the evidence in a rape case; and make sure that a mandatory set of standard operating procedures are followed by the police and medical personnel dealing with victims of sexual assault.

Considering the conclusiveness of DNA evidence, the Centre too is trying to institute the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill at the earliest. The matter still lies with the parliamentary standing committee on science and technology for discussion. Once enacted, the Bill will go a long way in standardising protocols and preventing repeat crime through a regulated DNA databank.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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