Biometrics to genetics

Aheli Moitra

In Nagaland’s remote peripheries, healthcare is so poor, people lose life to simplicity—the simple absence of a blood bank, an ambulance, a right diagnosis or a doctor.


With all the progress in medical science, people in these corners fall back a little every day.


It is not that medical science does not want to help—with all its right intentions, alas, medical science’s achievements, as also the infrastructure around it, is owned and disbursed as per the will of the powers that be.


So, while the Government of India (and its partner, the Government of Nagaland) remains well capable of collecting enough biometrics to bring, say, most Naga people under the ambit of the ‘formal economy,’ it has no will to uplift the condition of the Naga masses.


The government may not be willing to hear voices of the marginalized, but it is certainly interested in their biometrics. And their genome (complete set of genes in an organism). In a country given to prejudices of race, region, caste, class and creed, one can only imagine the dangers of any such data collection.


A scientist from Institute of Bioresources and Sustainable Development (Imphal), working in collaboration with the Genome India Project, has declared that the “people of northeast have many things which are unique and the genetic diversity of the people is not well understood.”


There are no genes that make a person more “northeastern” than “mainlander” but gene sequencing helps in identifying certain traits passed on through generations, particularly when ‘indigeneity’ is better preserved.


A project funded heavily by an IT giant will now trace the whole genome sequence of people “spanning different ethnic, linguistic and socio-cultural sections of the northeastern states.” It is yet unclear if unique political dimensions, which form a bulk of the region’s identities, will show up in the sequencing. What it will show up is, they say, a “new understanding of the different ethnic groups of India.”


The Institute has claimed that the program will reduce the financial burden on the people of the North East by bringing in “personalized medicine” developed through the use of “genetic information.”


A noble intent; given the infrastructure, as well as its political-social-regional-emotional distance from the centre, this “personalized medicine,” or even the “genetic information,” may never reach the people of the North East. When people are denied simple healthcare, how will a complex genetically personalized medicine be delivered to the people?


It also remains unclear as to who will own the resultant genetic database of the indigenous persons of the region who are heavily underrepresented in—almost missing from—the sciences, corporations, political parties and the government. With the basic ownership of land, and resultant politics, in a tussle, what does it mean for the government, or a corporation, to own the genes and biometrics of an unfree people? If the owners are to patent these, will people lose ownership over their limbs and genes?


With political questions like these being increasingly treated with a “business like” attitude by the powers that be, even as men in arms watch out for divergent attitudes, it has become unclear who will address these questions, or how.

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