Sunday, 28 June 2015

No closure likely for kin of over 4,000 missing in U'khand deluge as Centre, state abandon DNA project

Families of as many as 4,119 people who went missing in Uttarakhand deluge of 2013 may never get a sense of closure. Two years after the tragedy, an ambitious plan to match the DNA of all the decomposed dead bodies that were cremated onsite with samples collected from families of those missing, has been shelved—largely because of finances and logistics involved.

Both the Uttarakhand government and the Centre have termed the very exercise as "undesirable" now. This after close to Rs 1 crore were spent on collecting DNA samples from nearly 600 victim and 200 families and USA's FBI was roped in for analysis.

The state argues that families of all the missing have already been given death certificates overruling a seven-year cap on such declaration and so there is no need for DNA testing anymore. But the state seems to be focusing merely on the legal and not the emotional part of the tragedy.

Alwar-resident Vijendra Singh's wife Leela "died" during the 2013 Uttarakhand floods. However, since only a death certificate issued by the Uttarakhand government said so, he kept looking for her. On January 27, 2015, Singh found Leela alive, begging in the streets of Uttarkashi. He had then told the media that death certificate was not enough to convince him of his wife's death.

This is where DNA fingerprinting was thought to be essential as it would identify decomposed dead bodies and give families a sense of closure. The project was launched with much fanfare, with soundbites to the media from all and sundry in government, in the first few days of the tragedy itself.

NDRF and state police personnel collected samples from dead bodies and Centre for DNA Finger Printing and Diagnostics (CDFD) Hyderabad was roped in to build DNA profiles. As many as 574 samples were collected from dead bodies. CDFD managed to build over 450 profiles out these. But these were of no use until they could be matched with the families of all those missing.

This worked out to an impending collection of over 8,000 samples (the process requires two samples per family). The state government, however, could provide only 192 blood samples from families of victims. Based on this, CDFD, which imported technology from US with help from FBI, managed to generate 18 matches, thus giving a sense of closure to 18 families. This was in 2013. Since then, nothing has moved.

In fact, CDFD has had to struggle to recover even Rs 1 crore that it spent on generating 450 DNA profiles as Centre and state sparred over who would fund the project. The total cost of matching samples runs into Rs 5.15 crore according to CDFD. Sources say Uttarakhand government asked Centre for help which the latter refused saying it was the state's responsibility and no central scheme had provisions to fund such a project.

In a series of letters (in TOI's possession) written through 2014 to Uttarakhand chief secretary, National Disaster Management Authority and Department of Biotechnology (which funds CDFD), CDFD director J Gowrishankar has repeatedly pleaded for the state and Centre to take steps to finalize the process to give a sense of closure to families.

All he achieved was reimbursement from the state government of a little less that Rs 1 crore CDFD had spent on generating 450 profiles without any commitment on further action.

In a letter--its tone bordering on exasperation — written to the Centre on July 1, 2014, Gowrishankar writes, "The MHA (Home Ministry) letter of 26.6.2014 appears to suggest that the DNA-based identification of Uttarakhand victims may not be necessary any more at this stage. In CDFD's opinion discontinuing this exercise now would be most unwise and unwelcome ...Such a decision may have the effect of reducing the government's stature in the eyes not only of its citizens but also of the international community with respect to both human rights and S&T capabilities."

When TOI spoke to Uttarakhand Disaster Management secretary R Meenakshi Sundaram about the issue, he said, "These issues don't have any relevance today. The government of Uttarakhand with the permission of government of India has decided to treat all the missing persons as dead and has already issued death certificates to families of the victims. We needed to do DNA testing to prove the identity of the person. But since everybody has been issued a death certificate ...DNA fingerprinting is not required actually."

Sundaram insisted that this was not new and even during the tsunami of 2004 the government had done the same. He said that by issuing death certificates government had ensured families were able to claim insurance, compensation or use it for other such official purposes.

When reminded that a sense of closure to families was as important, he said, "I am not aware why things are stalled as I am new here. If it's a question of just Rs 4-5 crore, we can work something out."

CDFD director Gowrishankar, however, feels more than finances it's the logistics that the Centre and the state must focus on as samples have to be collected from thousands of families spread across the country. "If the entire process is completed we will be able to give a sense of closure to at least 450 people. We think it is still worth doing," Gowrishankar told TOI.

Home ministry's disaster management division, when contacted by TOI, maintained that the responsibility of funding as well as managing the logistics rested with the Uttarakhand government. It also feigned ignorance about the June 26, 2014 letter where it expressed that DNA fingerprinting was undesirable.

Sunday 28 June 2015


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