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What Really Is Holding Back Forensic Science in India?

What Really Is Holding Back Forensic Science in India?

Representative image of a forensic lab. Photo: Pixabay

Bengaluru: One of the reasons the Union government said it replaced the existing Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (CrPC) – which regulates the procedure for arrest, investigation, inquiry and trial of offences under the Indian Penal Code – with the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, 2023 (BNSS) Bill is the inadequate use of forensics. This is one of the “biggest hurdles” in speedy delivery of justice, and the BNSS provides for the use of technology and forensic sciences in the investigation of crime.

But, a new report on India’s forensic science system finds that there are large vacancies in government forensic labs, funding delays and underutilisation of budgets, and need for more space and better infrastructure.

The report, Forensic Science India report, was published today, by Project 39 A, a criminal justice research and litigation centre, part of the National Law University. The report is a collaboration with the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The survey includes 61 Forensic Science Laboratories (FSLs), including all eight Central Forensic Science Laboratories (CFSLs), 31 State FSLs and at least one Regional FSL, totalling 22, from each state, and uses data from 2013 to 2017. Of the 30 laboratories that responded to Project 39 A’s request for information, three were CFSLs, 17 SFSLs and 10 RFSLs.

In October 2021, IndiaSpend reported on the large number of cases closed by police due to the ‘lack of evidence’. One of the problems was the inadequate forensics infrastructure in India, which poses problems in timely investigation and completion of cases, we had reported.

High vacancy rate among scientific officers

Of the 3,211 sanctioned posts for 26 forensic science laboratories for which this information was available, 40% were vacant. Of the 1,294 vacant posts, more than two in three were scientific posts, that include personnel involved in any part of a forensic examination, such as the director, scientific officer, laboratory assistant or digital analyst.

SFSL Lucknow had the highest vacancy at 73%, and the same proportion of scientific posts were unfilled. The RFSL in Nagpur and Pune had more staff than sanctioned because the filled posts included contractual staff, which are otherwise not counted in permanent sanctioned posts, said the report.

Due to delays in recruitment, laboratories have to hire contractual staff leading to temporary hires at these institutions. Without contractual staff the proportion of filled scientific posts at these FSLs dropped from 63% to 52.5%, the report found. The lack of full time professionals also creates hierarchical gaps within the institution and impacts supervision of new recruits.

The high number of vacancies raise “serious concerns regarding the pendency of casework, the quality of forensic examination and the increased pressures on existing staff”, the report said.

During the introduction of the three criminal justice bills, including BNSS, Union home minister Amit Shah said that after three years, the country will get 33,000 forensic science experts and scientists every year. The BNSS has now made it mandatory for a forensic expert to visit the crime scene, if the crime has a punishment of seven years or more. If a forensic facility is not available, the state government is expected to notify “utilisation of such facility of any other state”, says the Bill.

According to the Bureau of Police Research and Development’s 2013 compendium of National Police Mission projects, “it is pertinent that forensic investigations are not left to the field officers but officers with background of forensic sciences are made available in the Police Stations to take up this job exclusively.”

Forensic science lab facilities remained “highly inadequate” in Uttar Pradesh, said a 2017 Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) audit report on Modernisation and Strengthening of Police Forces in Uttar Pradesh. More than 6,617 samples were pending for examination at Lucknow, Agra and Varanasi FSLs as of January 2011 which had more than doubled to 15,033 by March 2016, said the CAG’s report.

Budget underutilisation and bureaucratic delays

The CFSLs are funded by the Union government while SFSLs, RFSLs and Mobile Forensic Science Units (MFSUs) are funded by respective state governments and specific grants from the Union government. Central funding is “highly inconsistent” and none of the SFSLs or RFSLs received financial support from the Union government in every assessment year, said the report.

Eighteen of the 30 laboratories provided information on sources and amounts of funds received, 20 provided information on the budget forecasted and 22 supplied expenditure information, said the report.

In all, of 16 labs for which data were available on the forecasted budget, nine received as much or more than the forecasted amount between 2013 and 2017, while RFSL Nagpur and CBI CSFL received less than half of their forecasted budget.

The labs did not spend all the money they received. Only three FSLs in Lucknow, Shimla and Dharamshala had an overall expenditure-to-receipt ratio of 100% or more. Data relating to funds received for four out of five years were unavailable for RFSL Nashik.

The report said that the administrative and financial control of the respective state police departments made budget and expenditure approvals cumbersome, compared to FSLs that were directly under the home departments. Further, FSL officials said there was a delay in receiving funds under the Modernisation of Police Forces scheme of the Union government, in addition to the lapsing of funds at the end of each financial year.

At least five labs–CBI-CFSL, CFSL Chandigarh, SFSL Bhubaneswar, SFSL Raipur and RFSL Nagpur–have underutilised funds between 2013 and 2017, the analysis shows.

In all, the expenditure for all laboratories was less than three-fourth of the total forecasted amount. While less than half (40%) of the forecasted amount was spent on equipment and material in the five-year period, three-fourth or more was spent on salary and wages, allowances and professional services, and travel and transfer expenses.

Pending cases

The report also analysed case data in 29 laboratories between 2013 and 2017. The FSLs had at least one of 17 different divisions, such as biology, ballistics, DNA profiling, toxicology, narcotics, serology, documents, excise etc., functional in any assessment year between 2013 and 2017, said the report.

Excise (38.6%), toxicology (15.4%) and biology (14.7%) divisions reported the highest number of cases received in a year, while toxicology (116.7%), excise (106%) and explosives (105%)

had the highest examination rates–that is, the number of cases examined compared to the number of cases received by that division in a particular year. The examination rate is higher than 100% because of historical pendency, the report said.

The comparison between pendency and examination rates shows that the excise division, despite receiving the most cases, has the highest difference between examination and pendency (98%).

Cyber forensics, DNA profiling and ballistics had high pendency rate indicating need for expanding these departments, the report said.

The report also noted that across FSLs, the examination rate in DNA profiling “drastically declined” in 2016 and 2017, which was accompanied by a rise in pendency rates.

The examination rate in cyber forensics has always been lower than the pendency rate. Considering cyber forensics is new, “it signals the need for reassessing the resource allocation needs of this division”, the report says.

Among various challenges, FSLs said that police sent exhibits that bore “no forensic value” like sending “all mobile phones, sim cards or other digital devices for data extraction, without any investigative strategy”.

FSL scientists said that in the absence of video-conferencing facilities in the FSLs or across trial courts, they would often lose entire days of work during court visits, especially due to adjournments or other delays in recording witness testimonies, said the report.

Additional space required for FSLs

According to the report, more than half (13) of FSLs of the 25 that shared data on space said that they needed more space compared to the sanctioned space. This ranged from a nearly 10% increase in the CBI-CFSL to a nearly 300% additional space requirement in the case of the SFSL in Imphal.

Challenges cited by FSL personnel include inadequate planning and design, lack of security, inadequate equipment maintenance and availability and lack of safety procedures.

IndiaSpend has written to the Ministry of Home Affairs for its response on funds, vacancies, infrastructure and pendencies in the forensic science system. We will update the story when we receive a response.

(Nuzhat Khan, an intern at IndiaSpend, provided inputs for the story.)

This article was originally published on IndiaSpend and has been republished under a Creative Commons License.

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