Wednesday, August 19, 2009

csi: new delhi

At India's first private forensic laboratory, business is booming.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
Published: August 19, 2009 07:11 ET

NEW DELHI — For Dr. KPC Gandhi, a former police inspector, the truth is an obsession.
He believes it's a fundamental human right that India's legal system is too overburdened to guarantee. That's why, in 2007, Gandhi set up India's first private forensic investigation laboratory, Truth Labs, a firm that will soon have offices in Hyderabad, Delhi, Bangalore and Jaipur.

“Crime can be stopped by involving and engaging and enabling and empowering the common people,” said Gandhi, who resigned from the police force after a 40-year career in forensic investigation to start Truth Labs. “Within one-and-a-half years, we started getting cases from the courts, including the high court, from the police, and from a large number of subordinate courts. I get calls from four or five people every day, asking for some consultancy about fraud or forgery.”

As India modernizes, more disputes are arising over inheritance, forgery, impersonation, marital infidelity and even corporate espionage. But because India has one of the world's smallest police forces, and because the civil and criminal courts face a backlog that runs into literally millions of cases, getting to the bottom of mysteries and resolving conflicts through the legal system is fraught with problems.

A simple dispute over a forged will, for instance, might take 25 or 30 years to resolve in court. Using techniques now world famous thanks to C.S.I., Gandhi promises a solution in 24 hours: the truth.

Truth Labs charges a little more than $100 per investigation, and the company waives even that nominal fee for destitute or deserving clients — like a teacher who lost his job because his superior had forged his initials on a document used to pilfer government funds.

“We're interested only in the people's welfare, finding the truth, and rendering them justice,” said Gandhi, who explained that Truth Labs primarily acts as a facilitator in the arbitration of disputes, rather than providing evidence for use in legal proceedings.

The cases that Truth Labs has solved range from paternity and inheritance disputes to criminal cases of forgery and fraud. In one case, an industrialist family from Mumbai approached Truth Labs for polygraph testing after a young bride confessed that her father-in-law had propositioned her when it was discovered that the husband was infertile and they were planning to have a test tube baby.

In another, DNA testing proved that a husband's suspicions about the paternity of his second child were unfounded — ending years of marital strife. And in a third, Truth Labs document experts verified that a will that had divided a family for more than two generations had been doctored by an unscrupulous cousin.

In all of these cases, like the majority that Truth Labs investigates, the guilty party confessed when he was confronted with scientific proof, and the certainty of the resolution allowed the disputants to move on with their lives.

“We are getting quality cases where a genuine problem arises that has been persisting in a family for generations, and they come to me and within a day or five days their problems are permanently solved,” Gandhi said.

It's a curious business model for India. Though the use of forensic science for preventing fraud was pioneered here during the British Raj by Sir William Herschel — who in 1858 concluded that the fingerprint was a "signature of exceeding simplicity" that defeated even the local genius for forgery — in modern times the Indian legal apparatus is no more known for cutting edge science than the bureaucracy is for its speed and efficiency.

Senior police officers readily admit that the most common form of investigation amounts to rounding up the usual suspects and slapping them around. And in several famous whodunits — like the 2008 murder of Aarushi Talwar, a 14-year-old girl who was found with her throat slit in her family's New Delhi apartment — blatant mishandling of evidence by bumbling constables has virtually precluded a genuine investigation.

According to Jagadeesh Narayanareddy, a professor of forensic medicine at the Vydehi Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Center in Bangalore, India's mortuaries lack basic facilities, a shortage of qualified personnel makes forensic investigation impossible in many cases and cultural prejudices often override science in cases involving rape or disputed paternity.

In rural areas, for instance, officials often skip autopsies for suspicious deaths, either due to medical ignorance or even to keep crime statistics low, while larger hospitals carry out autopsies as a matter of course whether they are needed or not — burdening personnel and putting unnecessary stress on the bereaved.

But it's just that kind of incompetence, along with the public's nearly complete lack of faith in the police and the court system, that makes Truth Labs a booming business.

“At a peak load, we can handle up to 3,000 cases a year,” Gandhi said.

As the backlog of cases in India's court system continues to mount, there's unlimited room for expansion.

“This has a larger role to play, because people are not fully aware of the services we offer. We expect every state will have these Truth Labs in the next 10 years,” Gandhi said.

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