THE GIST of Editorial for UPSC Exams : 21 December 2018 (Towards a genetic panopticon )

Towards a genetic panopticon

Mains Paper 3: Science and Technology
Prelims level: DNA
Mains level: Awareness in biotechnology


  •  Parliament today serves less as a locus for debate and discussion and more as one for din and discord.
  •  But the pandemonium that appears to be the permanent state of affairs in both Houses scarcely seems to stop the government from passing laws, as we’ve seen this winter session.
  •  The government’s disdain for dissent, though, makes the potential introduction of the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2018, for consideration by the Rajya Sabha an especially invidious proposition

Problems with the draft Bill

  •  The draft statute, approved by the Union Cabinet in July, not only disregards the serious ethical dilemmas that are attendant to the creation of a national DNA database, but also, contrary to established wisdom.
  •  The virtually treats DNA as infallible, and as a solution to the many problems that ail the criminal justice system.
  •  What’s more, any infringement of civil liberties, caused by an almost indiscriminate collection of DNA, is seen as a legitimate trade-off made in the interests of ensuring superior justice delivery.
  •  The Bill fatally ignores is that the disproportionality of the DNA bank that it seeks to create, and the invasiveness of its purport and reach, imposes a Faustian bargain on the citizen.
  • The genes encoded
  •  The genes encoded in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which can be collected from blood, hair, skin cells and other such bodily substances, have undoubtedly proven to be an important tool in forensic science.
  •  Much like fingerprints, a person’s DNA profile is unique (except in the case of identical twins) and can, therefore, help in establishing the identity of, say, a suspect.
  •  The only a small amount of genetic material is needed to create such a profile makes the form of evidence especially appealing to criminal investigators.
  •  Across the world, the use of DNA evidence has helped exonerate a number of innocent people from wrongful conviction, and has also helped find the guilty party in complex investigations.

Regulations needed

  •  It is to that end that we no doubt need a law to help regulate the manner and circumstances in which the state may be entitled to collect biological material from a person.
  •  The requirement for such a law is only accentuated by an amendment made to the Code of Criminal Procedure in 2005, which expressly authorises investigating officers of a crime to collect a DNA sample from an accused with the help of a medical practitioner.
  •  It aimed at regulating the use of DNA, has failed to provide a constitutionally sustainable model.
  •  The draft law seeks to create a National DNA Data Bank, which will be maintained on the basis of various different categories.
  •  This including a crime scene index, a suspects’ index and an offenders’ index, with a view to “facilitating identification of persons”.
  •  This attempt at identification may relate, among other things, to a criminal investigation, to a judicial proceeding of any kind, and even to civil cases such as “parental disputes”, “issues relating to pedigree”, and “issues relating to establishment of individual identity”.
  •  The proposed law, however, is not only decidedly vague on how it intends to maintain this DNA Bank, but it also conflates its objectives by allowing the collection of DNA evidence not only in aid of criminal investigations but also to aid the determination of civil disputes.
  •  Therefore, there’s no end to the state’s power in coercing a person to part with her DNA.

The use of DNA evidence

  •  In its present draft, however, the Bill woefully falls short of meeting these tests.
  •  The idea behind maintaining a DNA database is to help match and compare samples collected from a crime scene against a set of stored profiles.
  •  Thereby helping in the identification of a potential suspect in a criminal investigation.
  •  India’s Bill, though, seeks to make the DNA Bank available for a slew of unconnected purposes, including permitting its use in civil cases.
  •  Consider the consequences: a person wrongfully accused of a crime, say, for speeding a vehicle over permissible limits, who might have been compelled to give her genetic material may well see this evidence being used against her in an altogether different proceeding of a purely civil nature.
  •  Given that in India, even illegally obtained evidence is admissible in a court of law, so long as the relevance and genuineness of such material can be established.
  •  The Bill’s failure to place sufficient checks on the use of DNA evidence collected in breach of the law makes the process altogether more frightening.

Way forward

  •  It’s been reported previously, for instance, that the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, whose director will occupy an ex officio place in the DNA Regulatory Board.
  •  Thought it already seeks information on a person’s caste during the collection of genetic material.
  •  One hardly needs to spell out the dangers inherent in gathering such data.
  •  To enact the law in its present form, therefore, would only add a new, menacing weapon to the state’s rapidly expanding surveillance mechanism.
  •  We cannot allow the benefits of science and technology to be privileged over the grave risks in allowing the government untrammelled access to deeply personal and penetrating material.

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General Studies Pre. Cum Mains Study Materials

Prelims Questions:

Q.1) Which among the following is known as the power house of the cell, has its own DNA and ribosomes?
(a) Mitochondria
(b) Nucleus
(c) Golgi Body
(d) Endoplasmic Reticulum

Answer: A

Mains Questions:
Q.1) The DNA Bill will give the state untrammelled access to deeply personal and penetrating material. Critically examine.