DNA samples bill cause for concern

DNA samples bill cause for concern

Issues of rights, privacy, misuse not addressed

Representative image. Credit: iStock Images

The Identification of Prisoners (Karnataka Amendment) Bill, passed recently by the Assembly, which seeks to collect DNA and voice samples and iris scans as “measurements” of convicts may be well-intentioned, but is susceptible to misuse unless adequate safeguards are built in. Earlier, only photographs, besides hand and footprint impressions of prisoners sentenced to rigorous imprisonment of one year or more were collected; with the passage of the Bill, DNA samples of even those convicted for one month will be obtained. What raises concern is that the Bill also does away with mandatory magisterial oversight as now even superintendents or deputy commissioners of police can authorise collection of such samples. A similar piece of legislation — The DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill — sought to be enacted by the Centre has been hanging fire for long over concerns of data security and profiling of people of certain communities as it has far-reaching implications, like collection of samples from suspects, too. Karnataka Home Minister Araga Jnanendra argues that such a database will help in identifying habitual offenders, while allaying fears of any breach, as the data will be stored in the criminal tracking system in Bengaluru. But given the country’s poor track record in matters relating to privacy, confidentiality and data protection, such promises do not inspire confidence. Karnataka should have, at the least, waited for the central act to come into force so that it could have taken a more informed decision. 

However, the Karnataka Prison Development Board Bill, which was also passed by the Assembly is welcome as it aims at ensuring that jail inmates walk out as “productive individuals” at the end of their term. The board will enable a study of the living conditions in prisons, correctional intervention, skill improvement through job-oriented training and other welfare measures which will enable prisoners to integrate into society and live a respectable life. Historically, prisons were considered ‘house of captives’ where prisoners were kept for retributory and deterrent punishment, with no effort to rehabilitate them. It is thus heartening that Karnataka is moving towards reforming offenders to enable them to re-assimilate in the social milieu. 

Several panels, including the All-India Committee on Jail Reforms headed by Justice A N Mulla, have called for a comprehensive law embodying modern principles and procedures regarding reformation and rehabilitation of offenders. It is time Karnataka moved in this direction, instead of taking recourse to piece-meal legislation. The government should ensure that custody, care, treatment and rehabilitation of offenders is compatible with human dignity in all aspects like accommodation, hygiene, sanitation, food, clothing and medical facilities.

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