Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 23 August 2023

Centre withdraws DNA Bill

Source: By The Indian Express

The Union government withdrew the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2019, from the Lok Sabha.

First proposed in 2003, the Bill has gone through numerous changes, led by both the Department of Biotechnology and the Law Ministry, over the years. In 2019, it was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee after being introduced in the Lok Sabha. Two years later, the panel’s report was released, in which it highlighted the fears of a number of MPs, saying the Bill could be misused to target segments of society based on religioncaste or political views.

What is the Bill?

As The Indian Express reported in 2019, the Bill seeks to create a regulatory framework for obtaining, storing and testing 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 investigationsestablishment 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 levelRegional centres of the board as well as the data bank can be set up at the state level too.

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.

What are the objections against the Bill?

The main debate over the proposed law has been around three issues — whether DNA technology is foolproof, whether the provisions adequately address the possibility of abuse of DNA information, and whether the privacy of the individual 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 eyehair or skin coloursusceptibility 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 Standing Committee’s 2021 report said, “The Committee is conscious of the fact that this Bill is very technical, complex and sensitive. A number of Members have expressed concern about the use of DNA technology — or more accurately its misuse — to target different segments of our society based on factors like religion, caste or political views. These fears are not entirely unfounded (and) have to be recognized and addressed.”

What has the government said?

The government has defended the Bill by arguing that nearly 60 countries have enacted similar legislation and that all important matters related to privacyconfidentiality and data protection have been taken into account.

It 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 individual and only acts act as a unique identifier, it has said.

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