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Forensic science landscape in India

Devina Sikdar, Project 39A, forensic science laboratories, Directorate of Forensic Science Services, infrastructure of forensic science labs.
To understand the forensic landscape in India, I’ll first begin by explaining the structure of forensic science laboratories in India. The practice of forensic science in India is largely limited to the government sector, with private laboratories practicing few disciplines of forensic science. As per the research conducted by Project 39A, there currently approximately 105 functional government forensic science laboratories in India, which are divided across three tiers- central state and regional. The Directorate of Forensic Science Services, or DFSS, under the Ministry of Home Affairs, has administrative control over the central forensic science laboratories, or CFSLs. There are seven CFSLs under the DFSS and one comes under the supervision of Central Bureau of Investigation.
Apart from these CFSLs, a state forensic science laboratory, or SFSL exists in every state. Under these SFSLs, certain states also have regional laboratories known as RFSLs spread across different regions of the state. Some RFSLs may have district or mobile FSLs under them as well. The SFSLs come under the administration of the respective state police or state home departments. The current central and state laboratories are equipped with several divisions like ballistics, biology, chemistry, cyber forensics, document examination, DNA profiling, explosives, fingerprinting, serology and toxicology. Each of these divisions conduct different types of forensic examination. The number and type of divisions across all SFSLs and RFSLs is different. Therefore, the capacity for forensic examination may differ across states.
Over the last decade, the use of forensic DNA profiling and cyber forensics in criminal casework has seen a rise, especially in sexual violence cases. We have observed most states sanctioning DNA divisions in their laboratories in the last few years. For criminal casework, only government laboratories examine the evidence and submit the reports. Bulk of the examinations are carried out by the SFSLs and RFSLs. Having understood the structure of these laboratories and the different types of divisions, we now move on to their condition in terms of infrastructure, recruitment and quality management. Only a few states in the country are equipped with dedicated crime scene units.
Otherwise, the police may at the investigating officers discretion ask the scientists from the state’s forensic laboratory to assist with the crime scene collection. Subsequently, the evidence is stored in police evidence warehouses, which are not equipped with temperature, humidity and light controls. The evidence is then forwarded to the laboratory that is nearest to the police and is carrying out the type of examination they need. If the nearest RFSL or SFSL is not carrying out the required type of examination, the evidence has to be sent to another laboratory for examination. This is where CFSLs enter. Investigating authorities from across the country can send evidence here to get it examined when their own state FSLs do not have the required expertise.
Considering the important role forensic examination plays in the criminal investigation and the justice system, it is crucial that laboratories follow robust quality standards. Imagine yourself going in for an important medical procedure. What will be the first thing you check- the qualifications of the doctor, maybe, the reputation of the hospital? You will definitely want to assure yourself that the quality of service being provided is good, if not the best, right? You’d want the hospital to have top notch facilities and the doctor to have successfully performed this procedure multiple times. Now imagine the same situation for forensic laboratories. Does the laboratory have the adequate infrastructure to examine the evidence properly?
I’m sure you’re not want to be operated in a poorly functioning and ill equipped O.T., right? In the same way, evidence examination also requires minimum infrastructure without which the quality of examination greatly reduces. Next, who is examining the evidence? Are they qualified? Do they know how to carry out this examination? Are they proficient and how many times have they done this examination? These are fundamental questions to ensure the quality of examination is not compromised. Through Project 39A’s research in this area, we have observed that laboratories face various administrative challenges and continue to deal with high number of vacancies and poor infrastructure. Laboratories are often converted office buildings and are ill equipped to examine forensic evidence.
Through multiple government audit reports and our own fieldwork, we know that laboratories have a dearth of instruments at their disposal. Due to bureaucratic processes, procurement of even essential equipment continues to be a major challenge in the laboratories. The lack of financial planning and aid continues to impact forensic laboratory infrastructure and the quality of examination being conducted in these laboratories. Aside from the vast number of scientific vacancies across the country, the educational qualifications and training of these scientists continues to raise concerns. Traditionally, students with degrees in pure science subjects have been hired by forensic laboratories to conduct forensic examinations despite the high number of forensic institutes in the country.
There remain quite a few laboratories which do not have forensic science as a qualifying subject as part of the recruitment rules. Training provided in these laboratories is also highly unregulated, with varying degrees of duration and content across laboratories. Given what we now understand about how infrastructure and staff qualifications can impact the quality of examinations, it is crucial that standards be set and implemented to improve these issues so as to allow for better quality management of laboratories. Quality management is a process by which forensic laboratories ensure that set standards are being followed across all laboratory procedures. In India, the government forensic laboratories lack compliance with quality control mechanisms, which leads to poor evidence handling and examination.
Accreditation of forensic science laboratories evaluates quality standards and checks if there be adhered to by laboratories and the scientists. Currently, the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL) is responsible for the accreditation of the central state and regional laboratories, as well as for proficiency testing of the scientists. In India, currently, only nine government forensic laboratories are accredited by the NABL. This is a deeply worrying statistic. Many courts in India have also taken cognisance of the state of FSLs and how it affects casework. Therefore, we cannot dismiss the importance of quality management in forensic laboratories.
As lawyers, it is important for you to assess the quality of evidence being submitted against your client, and that should also require you to assess the laboratory’s capacity and the scientist’s capabilities.

In this video, Devina Sikdar from Project 39A introduces you to the forensic science landscape in India. She discusses the regulatory structure of forensic science laboratories and the challenges faced by them. As you examine forensic evidence in your casework, it is essential to have an understanding of the institutions involved in the analysis of such evidence.

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