As of December, there were more than 12,000 DNA samples from sexual assault cases waiting in national forensic science labs
This backlog highlights a part of the criminal justice system left untouched by legal reforms
On one hot summer night in 2016, Rani went to bed in her hut near the banks of the Yamuna River in Delhi.
Normally, she would have slept outside, where a breeze could provide some relief, but she did not feel well and had taken medicine that made her drowsy.
But this meant she didn’t notice when her 7-year old daughter, who was sleeping outside with the other children, was taken away.
By the time she woke up, her daughter had returned, and there was blood everywhere. Four men, one of whom police say was a distant relative, had taken the girl and gang-raped her, she said.
Rani called the police, who soon arrived and took her and her daughter to the closest hospital. The doctors referred them to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the country’s premier medical college and hospital, where a doctor’s aide examined the girl and sent her for surgery.
“Her blood kept on flowing,” said Rani, for whom CNN is using a pseudonym because revealing evidence that can identify a rape victim is prohibited by law in India. Her daughter had to undergo surgery for the injuries to her genitalia.
The aide who examined her daughter did not tell Rani much about what was happening, saying only that the girl needed surgery.
Four suspects were quickly arrested and remain in jail today with no bail. Rani’s daughter spent about two weeks in the hospital.
She was one of the 16,863 rape victims under the age of 18 in 2016, according to national crime records. Of all the reported rapes that year, more than 94% were attacked by someone they knew, either a family member or a neighbor, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
Now, almost two years later, Rani’s daughter’s case is still pending in court.
The forensic report on the medical evidence taken the night of the crime still hasn’t arrived, said her lawyer Dhruv Banerji of BCO Legal in Delhi, adding that the young girl now lives in a children’s home.
Rani’s daughter’s case is just one of thousands backed up in India’s forensics labs.
As of December, there were more than 12,000 DNA samples from sexual assault cases waiting in national forensic science labs, according to a report from the Hindustan Times – and there are likely to be more.
A long wait for data – and justice
The pending samples highlight a part of the criminal justice system left untouched by legal reforms prompted by the 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a student who was attacked on her way home from the movies in the capital. This means people like Rani face a long struggle to find justice.
Meanwhile, cases of sexual violence continue to surface. In April, people across the country protested the gang rape and death of an 8-year-old girl in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir; she was reportedly drugged and violated over the course of five days.
India’s forensic labs simply do not have the capacity to handle all the cases.
Three of the six national forensic science labs have the capacity to do DNA analysis on which a rape prosecution can hinge.
In addition, each state has its own forensics lab; there are 31 in the country – but only 16 have the capacity for DNA analysis.
Currently, “the [central forensics] lab in Chandigarh [can] only cater to 153 cases,” said Rakesh Srivastava, the secretary of India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development. In 2016, India recorded more than 38,947 cases of rape. Any cases that require forensic evidence get sent to labs.
Srivastava did not deny the backlog of more than 12,000 DNA samples but deferred questions to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which declined to comment on the exact number of cases in the backlog.
In Delhi alone, forensic science labs have 1,765 samples pending in the biology division as of September 2017, according to court documents.
Experts say India’s government has not made forensic evidence a priority, particularly DNA.
“India is a unique country in that they have one of the more notable sexual assault problems but has done very little about it,” said Tim Schellberg, founder of Gordon Thomas Honeywell, which consults with governments across the world on forensic evidence. “Forensic DNA is the best tool that anyone or any country or any police department could ever use, but the government still haven’t embraced it. The labs do what they can.”
In high-income countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, doctors use a standard rape kit, which includes items like tubes to collect blood and urine samples, glass slides and wooden sticks for fingernail samples, but no similar standard kit exists in India.
Scientists can take the biological fragments into a lab and construct a DNA profile of the criminal. If the country has a DNA database, they can match the profile to an offender in the registry. But India has neither.
Instead, many doctors in India still revert to outdated, unscientific tests like the two-finger test, in which an examiner determines whether a woman has been raped based on how loose her vagina is, said Sangeeta Rege, the coordinator at the Mumbai-based Centre for Enquiry Into Health and Allied Themes, a research-based advocacy organization that works on health and gender issues.
The doctors who look for evidence like vaginal swabs or stray hairs or blood on the victim’s body don’t always collect, for example in cases in which a victim has come in several days after a rape – and samples are no longer viable – or has taken a shower and washed any remaining evidence off, according to Pathak.
The capability and resources of state-level labs also vary. In India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh, lawyer Ravi Kant said he has waited over two years for a forensic report, whereas in Delhi, he can get a result in six months. Kant also co-founded Shakti Vahini, a nongovernmental organization working with victims of sex trafficking across India.
Srivastava said his ministry is funding the development of a new DNA facility within the central lab in Chandigarh, dedicated exclusively to DNA analysis in sexual assault cases, which would bring the capacity of the lab to more than 2,000 cases per year. The ministry expect the lab to open by the end of 2018 and plans to work with judges to get through the backlog of pending cases in courts.
The Ministry of Home Affairs announced in late May that forensics laboratories would be improved. The Ministry of Women and Child Development said five more advanced labs will be opened in the next three months and said it will provide police and hospitals with standardized rape kits.
Forensic experts also say India lacks trained workers who can handle the evidence properly, which is particularly vital in preventing false convictions.
“The man behind the machines is equally as important as the machine,” said Harish Pathak, the head of forensics at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial Hospital. However, “there is no availability of the expertise which is available in the West. Even when it is available, it’s not of the standard that’s available in the West.”
Kant, the lawyer, said, “We reach out to the police station whenever such [sexual assault] cases happen. Sometimes, [DNA] samples are taken, but they don’t know how to manage it. Sometimes, it gets put into coconut oil cans, sealed and sent to the lab.”
The wait for justice
Twenty-one months have passed since Rani and her daughter first saw the doctor the night of the assault.
That night, Rani tried to stop the flow of her daughter’s blood with her own clothes, so both her and her daughter’s clothes became covered in blood. These items, which were submitted to the forensics lab, are now evidence they need.
But they have been waiting almost two years. “We don’t even know whether it was tested,” said Banerji, her lawyer.
Because of the delays and errors with collecting forensic evidence, lawyers usually do not rely on it in cases of sexual assault. Instead, by Indian law, a woman’s testimony is enough for a conviction.
“It would be better to rely on forensics, but we don’t really have forensics,” Banerji added.
In 2013, after Pandey’s case drew outrage, India’s government increased criminal penalties for sexual crimes by lengthening prison sentences and adding the death penalty.
In 2014, the Ministry of Health issued national guidelines to health care providers on how to provide therapeutic care and take biological samples for forensic evidence from a victim without putting him or her through further trauma, but few states have started implementing the new guidelines, Rege said.
This year, after the rape of the 8-year old in April, the government announced the death penalty for those convicted of raping any child under 12. But none of these policies has addressed the need in India’s forensic sciences.
To fuel the situation further, India is processing even fewer cases than it has the potential to, as not enough people in the criminal justice system understand the technique’s true potential.
“We are doing less than 5% of the DNA profiles that can be done,” said N. Madhusudan Reddy, staff scientist and group leader at the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics in Hyderabad.
Reddy works at one of the country’s few state-of-the art labs. As the lab also focuses on conducting research, it operates independently of the national and state-level laboratories and deals only with specially referred cases from the courts and police. His lab can process a maximum of 800 cases a year.
“With adequate funding and training of the personnel, one could actually tackle the issue,” Reddy said.
Schellberg believes India can learn from other middle-income countries that have overcome this challenge with handling case loads, such as South Africa. “They had a huge problem, and they said, ‘what’s the best approach?’ They developed an incredibly massive laboratory to deal with rape kits, and they trained everybody on how to collect,” he said. “Now, “they have a very aggressive case program.”
Yet India does not even have a legal framework in place on how, where and when to use DNA. Nor does it have a DNA registry of offenders, which can help in cutting down repeat offenders.
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Versions of a bill to introduce DNA testing on a nationwide scale have been circulated since the early 2000s but have never passed. In 2017, the Law Commission of India prepared a new draft bill to regulate how DNA is to be used based on a draft submitted by the Department of Biotechnology in the Ministry of Science and Technology in 2016. The secretary in the Department of Biotechnology could not be reached by time of publication to confirm if the government has plans to pass the bill in 2018.
Furthermore, because any health-related issues or treatments linked to sexual violence are governed state by state, reform is uneven across the country. Activists like Rege are still trying to convince some states to implement the latest guidelines.
But change is happening, the Ministry of Women and Child Development’s Srivastava maintains.
“When you open the newspapers in the morning, all that you are greeted with are the murders and rapes of so many girls,” he said. “People are aware of it, and courts are becoming aware that rape is becoming the bane of our society, and it needs to be tackled with a firm hand. We evolved.”