Forensic science set up battles serious deficiencies

Forensic science set up battles serious deficiencies

The dramatic twist,  with the submission of ‘final’ post-mortem report to Delhi Police, in the mysterious case of Sunanda  Pushkar’s death has once again brought to the fore the serious deficiencies and lack of coordination between the departments of forensic medicine and toxicology, and forensic science laboratories. Being a sensational case with high socio-political connections, the case has attracted media attention and has been greatly publicised; otherwise, thousands of such cases pertaining to ordinary citizens go unnoticed in the routine.

Forensic science, which is an integral part of sciences, is facing a serious identity crisis in the country.  The forensic science has never been given its right place in the science policy of the country. The scientific organisational or laboratory management principles have never been applied to FSL. They are either run like offices or police stations on shoestring budgets with skeleton staff that are paid peanuts. There is no awareness at all in the field of science and technology about forensic science. The allocation of funds for their growth of both in the universities and FSL are abysmally small and negligible.

While modern forensic science has to work in the frontier areas of science using the cutting edge technologies if it has to deliver meaningful contribution to the criminal justice system, the forensic community in India is totally cut off from the mainstream of science and technology both academically and professionally. Forensic science is a multidisciplinary subject and it has to draw the knowledge, expertise and inspiration from all pure and applied sciences to effectively apply to crime prevention and crime investigation.

It cannot function effectively if it works in total isolation from the scientific culture and temper under the umbrella of police and other law enforcement agencies. Is it not a surprising paradox that while India has made giant strides in the field of agricultural, pharmaceutical, nuclear, medical, computer and space sciences, forensic science has remained totally static and technologically way behind by couple of decades when compared to other developed countries? Leave alone the advanced innovative forensic research, the forensic laboratories are not even able to adapt routine analytical methodologies developed abroad decades ago for want of personnel, and infrastructure.

Due to serious limitations of staff, infrastructure and abnormally large number of cases, the forensic scientists are not able to show the optimal performance. It may not be out of place to point out that their performance has plummeted to a level much below the internationally accepted parameters. In the absence of wherewithal, forensic laboratories are forced to perform name sake formality or ritual of analysis.  Modern scientific activity be it routine work or research are highly fund resource intensive.  As per the law of unattainable triads, we cannot get accurate and fast results cheap.

If we expect accurate, meaningful and fast results from the forensic laboratories, there are no cheap options. We have to invest lot of funds for highly qualified, experienced and competent human resources, infrastructural facilities like buildings, instrumentation, library etc. The accountability in forensic science has been minimal in the past and it must be brought in the ambit of main stream science and technology. Rigorous accountability should be there through appraisals, assessments and expert reviews by multidisciplinary expert members from different institutions.

Toxicology issues
A committee was appointed for revamping the forensic science in India by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in 2010 did its job within severe limitations and submitted its report in July 2011.  However, it will hardly shake the frozen outlook and liberate forensic science from its shackles. Even though the recommendations of this committee were said to have been accepted by the ministry in toto, they have not been implemented to date. Apart from forensic scientists, the committee should have had members from CSIR, ICMR, DRDO universities, judiciary and law enforcement agencies like the Department of Justice, USA (Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, National Academic Press, 2009) to have a meaningful outcome.

The plight of the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology in the country is not different from FSL. The facilities of autopsy theatres as well as pathology/toxicology laboratories attached to them are either not existing or inadequate. Strangely, there is absolutely no interaction between the forensic pathologists (autopsy surgeons) and the forensic analytical toxicologists who examine the same case. The above Committee has recommended that all the toxicological analysis work has to be carried out in a sophisticated laboratory attached to the autopsy theatre under the supervision of the forensic pathologists, as is done in USA under their Medical Examiners system.   

The government and the scientific institutions in general and forensic science laboratories and Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology in particular should synchronously work to foster the growth of forensic science in the country through an integrated approach towards forensic science education, routine forensic work and research and development work. Whole forensic science set up needs to be overhauled and reorganised completely, at all levels, however difficult or painful it is.  
This can be done by liberal funding to all agencies concerned and at all levels for improving the availability of human resources, boosting the infrastructure to an excellent status, promoting good science and good research, integrating forensic science with main stream science and technology and giving complete scientific autonomy free from red tape, bureaucracy and non-interference from the police or administrators.

(The author is former Director, Central Forensic Science Laboratory and till recently, Academic Coordinator, Forensic Science, Department of Chemistry, University College of Science, Osmania University, Hyderabad)

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