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In Conversation with Dr. Vivek Shahajpal, Assistant Director (DNA) at the Directorate of Forensics Services, Himachal Pradesh

Dr. Vivek Sahajpal is currently working as Assistant Director (DNA) at the Directorate of Forensics Services, Himachal Pradesh, and has experience of more than two decades in the field of DNA forensics. He has dealt with more than two thousand cases of DNA profiling and testified in various courts of law. Some of the DNA cases that were handled by Dr. Sahajpal were of great importance and highly acknowledged. Dr. Sahajpal attained his Master and Doctorate in Forensic Science from the Punjabi University, Patiala. During his Doctorate research Dr. Sahajpal undertook some of the pioneering research in the field of wildlife forensics at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradoon. His doctoral research focused on molecular characterization/identification of protected species under the Wildlife (Protection) Act-1972. Dr. Sahajpal also worked at the Advanced Biotechnology Center, Dubai, United Arab Emirates where he handled projects on genetic diversity, population genetics, and the development of microsatellite DNA markers for some protected species. Dr. Sahajpal has worked on population genetics of Himachal Pradesh and other states of India, focusing mainly on the hill states. In addition to research on population genetics, he has also worked on development of techniques in the field of DNA forensics to deal with peculiar problems that are encountered during DNA testing in Indian scenario. Dr. Sahajpal has more that 40 research publications to his credit andis in the editorial and reviewer panel of some reputed international journals in the field of Forensic Science. Dr. Sahajpal is life-time member of the International Society for Forensics Genetics (IFSG) and Indian Hair Research Society (IHRS). Further Dr. Sahajpal is also an expert in the field of Quality Management and created the Quality Management System at the Directorate of Forensics Services, Himachal Pradesh for ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation. Dr. Sahajpal has also been activelyinvolved in training of investigating officers and medical officers in collection and preservation of DNA evidence and has acted a resource person for training of HP Police, Delhi Police, etc. He has also a resource person for the intuitions like AIIMS, Delhi, LNJN NICFS, Delhi, Amity University, Noida, etc. In addition Dr. Sahajpal is also an active participant is the “Save the DNA” campaign that works to educate the society, victim and other stakeholders about the importance of DNA evidence in crimes against women and minors. Dr. Sahajpal is also the Nodal Officer for the Disaster Victim Identification Cell of the Directorate of Forensics Services, HP.
What inspired you to join the Forensic domain? How do you feel about your decision now?
This goes back to my childhood. I grew up studying Alfred Hitchcock, reading Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Pyro. That’s how that made me detective from inside. Detection was something in my thoughts always. There’s nothing better than doing scientific detection. That precisely inspired me to get into this field. Forensic is a field, which applies the science for crime investigation. So that was something, which I always thought of. And, that ultimately brought me into this field and asked for. I’m very much happy with my decision because ultimately I’m able to do what I wanted to do, and I’m trying to give all the best possible service, which I can give to society. I am very much satisfied with my decision.
It has been noted that a Forensic Laboratory receives an enormous amount of case exhibits for examination. As the examination of exhibits related to DNA are very time consuming, what approaches are required to clear the backlog of cases to ensure that there is no delay in court trails?
Forensics is about taking the case to a logical conclusion, it is not about disposing of the evidence which is sent to us. Analyze it, come out with some report, submit the report; and, the job is over. No, it’s not like that. One has to remember that in the case of forensics, there will be no control over the quantity and quality of the sample. So whatever you have been provided, you have to get the best out of it. So yes, in that process, there is a possibility that there can be a backlog, but that backlog is not because it is being deliberately done. It is because when you try to extract the best possible things, we don’t have the luxury of resampling, whatever is there that has to be used for testing. There is a possibility of backlog, but that is basically because of the shortage of infrastructure and manpower. And if good investment into infrastructure and manpower is done by the government, then definitely there’ll be no backlogs.
A welcome thing, in this case, is the Nirbhaya fund.  And under this, a lot of funds have been given to some of the labs and they have been able to procure good infrastructure. Similarly, they have also been able to hire manpower, youngsters who have just finished their master’s in forensic science or similar to that. And these youngsters are very enthusiastic and they learn things very quickly, they help to analyze the cases and helps to speed up the entire thing. And that helped us to attain the report in a very short time and that also quality reports. So good infrastructure and well-trained manpower are required. Because the population of countries is more than 1.3 billion, so ‘n’ number of experts is required, we need a numerable number of DNA experts or other forensic experts then only will be able to dispose the cases quickly. And also in a justified manner.
There might have been various instances, when you were called for inspecting the crimes scenes by the IO/Police Unit. How challenging is it to deal with it apart from the lab work?
As far as the challenge is concerned, when you go to the crime scene, some of the lab work goes on the back burner. But in another way, this challenge is also very good, as we are dealing with the scene of crime instead of the case analysis at the lab. It gives you a very good opportunity to examine the scene of the crime. When you’re putting a forensic expert at the scene of a crime,  we are assured that the best will come out. First of all, the identification of the evidence will be easy, collection and preservation will be done nicely, and there will be proper documentation. Also, the crime scene will be processed in a very nice way. When all these things come out to the lab, the evidence which has been collected from the crime scene will help to generate a nice report as far as quality work is concerned and that will put the investigation on the right track.
The involvement of a forensic expert at the scene of the crime leads to the investigation on right track from the very beginning. So the entire process remains in a proper direction and does reach a logical conclusion. And it is challenging as managing the time and other things is concerned, as it is the part of the job and it is also service to the nation, to the society, So one should be happy dealing with it.
After the lab examination of the case evidences, you might have been called in the court of law on many instances to testify about a particular case either from the Prosecutor side. What challenges were encountered by you while giving your opinion in the court & what things should one consider while testifying in cases related to DNA?
The field of forensics is a challenging job. One has to understand that working in the field of forensics, doing the scientific analysis of crime evidence, and then submitting a report, one has to be assured that you have to face judicial scrutiny and report has to face the scrutiny of the law. It has to stand to that. So one has to be prepared for that. And, you’ll be grilled with the defense also, and that is their right, and this is how the system works.
And if you can defend your report in the court of law, then only your work is justified. Otherwise, if you fail to defend your reports in the court of law, then your work is of no use. One has to be patient during the judicial trials and in the court of law. From the beginning, when the experiment is well-planned, meticulously executed, there are checks and balances at every point. Then the level of confidence is very high while appearing in the court of law because you know that whatever you have done is accurate. You have done justice to the science, then probably it is not at all difficult to face the court of law. And you are very much able to defend your reports, appreciated by the judiciary and also by the prosecution, and sometimes even by the defense also.
Most of the professionals working at various FSLs are overburdened by the casework. But you managed to indulge into research work in spite of all this. How did you make it possible and what challenges did you encounter while doing so? In your opinion, how important is it to collaborate with other people for any research?
Again, it’s all about time management. If you have the will to do something, definitely you will find a way. Being in the field of forensics if you want to remain on the cutting edge of the technology, research is important. And in the field of forensics, everything, every day will throw a new challenge. Many times a certain technology and protocol may not be available, certain problems require research and which is challenging. Instead of looking for solutions from a commercial source or some other academic institution, try to work on it because you know the actual problem. This gives you a very good research opportunity and ultimately a solution that is an outcome of the research, which is wonderful i.e., actual practical not theoretical research or on an assimilated sample. Collaboration with our other institutions is very good because being in a lab, there is time limitation and other commitments. Collaborating with the institute is a win-win situation for both as the Ph.D. scholars perform their research. The student gets the lab facilities to do the best possible research as the infrastructure is good in the labs as compared to the academic institutions and the lab also gets good students who can work on the problem. The final solution is beneficial for crime investigation and for society itself. And this adds to the academic value of the institution, as well as the lab.
As a Wildlife Forensic researcher & enthusiast, how do you see the future and scope of Wildlife Forensics in India? What are some of the recent advancements in the field?
Wildlife forensics is the field I am very much passionate about because I started my research on genetics and wildlife forensics. Wildlife forensics is a very challenging field unlike human forensics, where the ready-to-use technology as in the case of DNA technology. Whereas in the case of Wildlife forensics there is no ready-to-use technology. In most of the cases, the present scenario has been changed, but initially, every case provided a peculiar situation. I remember many years ago we were supposed to identify some species based on DNA profile and hair structure. Forensics is a science of comparison. Until, unless you have a reference sample, how you’ll compare it and testing is difficult without the reference standard. It is very challenging and initially, this field was concentrated on the identification of the species from confiscated items.
Not only the animal or the part of the animal, even the products of animals like medicines, shawls, leather, etc. is also tested in the case of wildlife forensics. This is very challenging.
A further step that has come up now is not only species identification but an advanced level i.e., individualization. Suppose a particular animal is posted in a particular tiger reserve or natural reserve or a sanctuary if you can identify this animal belongs to this particular population.
Nowadays, researchers are creating huge databases for various species, at the moment most of the flagship species are being done. An immense amount of research and the potential of researching in this field is required not only in the field of genetics but there’s also in the field of morphology, isotope studies, and statistics. So this is a very good event where people should explore.
You have been a member of Editorial Board & reviewer for many Forensic Journals across the globe. What advice would you like to give the young researchers who wish to publish their research work in reputed journals?
I would like to give some advice, don’t be crazy about publishing simply by hook or crook. First of all, you need to produce quality research. To produce quality research don’t go by the number of publications.
The most important is good research work and work should be honest, without manipulating anything. And publish the research in a journal honestly with clear data, proper analysis with proper experimentation, proper language, and everything should be justified. Then only the publications get through the best journals easily. And if one is crazy about just gaining the number of publications, then probably he/she may not end up in a good place. So quality work is required that will be appreciated across the globe, high instrumentation is not required for research. Even good research can be done with limited equipment. Good quality research work is appreciated and will be published in reputable journals.
Himachal Pradesh became the first state of India to have DNA testing facility & NABL accreditation in all of it’s Forensic Science Laboratories. How significant is this achievement and how will it help the Criminal Justice System?
It is very important. When I came into testing previously I was into research work more than a decade ago. What used to happen is when you go into the court of law if you understand the Indian system. Say a particular person has a particular qualification, he appears for an interview and becomes an expert, and is notified as an expert by the government or appointed as an expert by the government. Then the person has to be trained for a period, later he starts examining and he claims him to be expert. The problem here is how do you build up the confidence of society. When a person goes to purchase anything like a phone or television, he/she looks for the brand and ends up purchasing a good brand. Or I can say while purchasing food items person looks for AGMARK or for other items ISI marks. When things are standardized and of good quality, that’s what people look for. Considering the quality of forensics, if you are an expert as per government notification. Are you an expert? This question is to be answered and that can only be assured to the common man to the society when you are assessed by a third party neutrally, so that is through accreditation and ensures that the testing you are doing is of international standards and power with international standards.
When these reports go into the court of law, they instill confidence in the prosecution and society also that whatever is being provided to them is of high quality which has international standards. So in that way accreditation very important.
 Secondly, about the entire lab NABL accreditation. Yes, it is necessary. It’s not that you have only labs accredited, I say you should also have crime scene unit accredited that instils confidence. Through accreditation try to provide the best possible things to society which depends on you.
We have the first NABL accredited Wildlife forensics facility. Yeah! this is one of my passions, I had. Wildlife forensics is very close to me. In 2018, we thought of creating a facility, i.e. ISO 17025 accredited for DNA forensics. Also, I have spent many years in quality management. As quality management of State FSL, Himachal Pradesh as the director is concerned. I started quality management, as a quality manager, I prepared all the documentation, which is a lengthy process.
Accreditation is all about records and documentation. So I thought, why not DNA forensics for the wildlife also?  We looked in that direction and created a facility regarding wildlife forensics in 2018. And ,we hope the nation of avails our facility, and we are receiving a significant number of cases in the state. Just before joining the interview, I got a call that some pangolin scales are seen. I asked to send them immediately for profiling.
What are your views on the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill 2019?
The DNA Technology Regulation Bill 2019 is pending in the legislation for almost one and a half-decade. We have been looking for the bill, through which we can have the criminal DNA database. But unfortunately, more than one decade has passed, the bill is still in the phase of legislation, and hoping it comes out soon.
DNA Technology Bill 2019 is very necessary at the moment, even small countries which are neighbor or adjoining to us like the Maldives have DNA databases. There are ‘n’ no. of cases, for example, the Gudiya Rape Case, a very infamous in Himachal Pradesh. In such cases, if the perpetrator is absconding, he’s not known it’s a blind case of rape and murder. When you don’t have a DNA database like searching for a blind case is like searching for a needle in a haystack. You have the profile of the person, but the DNA profile does not tell who the person is. The DNA database is important which I am talking about. Until, unless you have a DNA database, it is difficult to search for a person. Many times when these cases are cracked and when you find the real perpetrator of the case, and when you verify his antecedents, it is found that this person has history and scrutinize as a repeat offender he might have served a jail sentence. And if there has been a DNA database then such cases could be solved very easily. And if the amount of money in manpower, the testing, the investigation, the time invested in the DNA database can be more effective. The money and time can be saved, and all the cases can be solved very quickly and then the hue and cry of the public can be avoided. So we are hopeful that the DNA technology bill is enacted as soon as possible then we have a DNA database which is according to the CODIS or the databases of European countries.
I would like to talk about the DNA bill is like people talk about privacy issues. The DNA profile is generated is from the non-coding DNA, it doesn’t code for proteins. The DNA profile doesn’t tell height, weight, skin, creed, color, health status, orientation, or anything about the health state or disease of a person; it only tells about the gender that’s only can be identified by the DNA profile. Rest all things are non-coding markers and they don’t interfere with the privacy of any person. Many people are confused that the DNA bill is for the entire nation that the profile of every person will be collected, no it’s only for the criminals similar to the fingerprint bureau where the database of the accused is also maintained. Here we’ll have an automated DNA database of profiles of people who are convicted offenders or repeat offenders, not of the general public.
For your exemplary contribution to Forensics, you might have received various appreciation letters, awards & recognition. What are some of the notable ones?
Well, I will say one thing, when you are working you should work without expecting any rewards. But definitely, if a reward or awards that instils a zeal in the person to work. Precisely I will try to recollect one important. When I was a research fellow when I was researching in wildlife forensics, I went to the UK for a paper presentation on wildlife forensics. Being in a foreign nation in the UK at Imperial College London. There were the best people from across the globe and it was a two-day conference. Finally, at the end of the conference, an announcement was made your presentation and paper have been judged as the best paper in that country. This was the moment which I remember till date almost 15 years now but that brings me very good fond memories because being recognized in a foreign country, going from a country, which has limited sources and then your paper is the best paper that instills a lot of enthusiasm and feel highly rewarded.
Having worked for almost 2 decades in the Forensic Domain, how do you wish to contribute to this domain?
Well, I have already contributed more than two decades. So in the future also, I wish to contribute to this domain and have done plenty of analysis work. And at the moment what I’m trying to bring is the DNA forensics of international standard into our system, not in the form of just technology, but also in the form of interpretation, also like probabilistic stats, etc which are rarely used as far as the Indian scenario is concerned.
Similarly, also wish to contribute with the academy institutions so that we can do good research and we can bring out very well-groomed experts in the field of forensics, and ultimately we have a surplus manpower of trained experts across the country who can serve the nation as well go abroad to serve the world also. So this is my vision and wants to contribute like this. And I guess I will be able to attain it in the coming time, maybe in a decade or so.

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