NEW DELHI, India — It's hard to believe that India was once at the forefront of forensic science.
And yet, it's true. Once upon a time, 19th century British civil servants helped pioneer the use of fingerprints for criminal investigations in India.
Let's just say it's been downhill since then.
Rudimentary foul-ups routinely derail high-profile cases, like the unsolved 2008 murder of 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar. In everyday investigations of killings in rural India, officials most often avoid even a cursory autopsy in the interest of keeping crime statistics down.
And now, new allegations have emerged that suggest the malaise runs deeper.
Nearly a quarter of the scientists in New Delhi's top forensic investigation lab submitted fake documents or exaggerated on their applications in order to secure their jobs, whistleblowers have alleged.
"They chose people who did not have relevant experience in the field, particularly leaving out people who are available [and who have] relevant experience," said Delhi High Court lawyer C. Mohan Rao.
Rao represents two plaintiffs who allege that they were passed over for jobs at Delhi's state-run Forensic Science Laboratory that were instead given to unqualified recruits.
Seasoned observers can hardly be shocked by the allegations.
"In most cases, even if evidence is collected it may not be evaluated as quickly as possible," said Dr. Jagadeesh Narayanareddy, professor of forensic medicine at Vydehi Institute of Medical Sciences, Bangalore. "Usually the waiting period is three to six months, and if the evidence was not preserved properly, then definitely the results will not come properly."
By the numbers, killers were convicted in only about 45,000 of the 130,000-odd murders committed in India between 2005 and 2009 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) — which makes for a conviction rate of about 36 percent, or about half the success rate of most U.S. states.
But anecdotal evidence suggests that when suspects don't wilt under the third degree and forensic science is required to prove their guilt, that conviction rate drops precipitously.
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In the past, these failings have been attributed to poorly trained junior police officers. In the Aarushi case, for instance, the Central Bureau of Investigation has claimed that police in the New Delhi satellite town of Noida, Uttar Pradesh, destroyed as much as 90 percent of the crime scene evidence.
But poorly trained police aren't the only problem, it now appears.
"In India, we only have government-run forensic science laboratories," said Narayanareddy. "That means that the government has to appoint the scientists. Recruitment takes their own sweet time ... [and] it's like any other government agency: They also hire substandard people."
According to four separate court cases filed over the past few months, at least 15 of the 70 scientists employed by Delhi's Forensic Science Laboratory allegedly got hired based on fictitious or irrelevant job experience and fraudulent certificates, India's Mail Today newspaper reported.
All of the scientists whose credential are in question were hired between August and December 2009, during which time 33 new scientists were recruited.
Using India's Right to Information Act, the plaintiffs learned that an apartment complex stood where the private lab cited on a job application was supposed to be.
Similarly, a former lab assistant in chemistry and a contract worker from the ballistics department were hired as experts in forged documents and cyber crime, respectively.
Meanwhile, a new recruit was hired to work in the lie-detection department based on experience she claimed to have gained working there herself — during years that the unit wasn't even up and running.
So far, no one has challenged any of the criminal cases that the lab has been involved in over the past 18 months, but these new allegations raise serious suspicions as to integrity of investigations conducted during that time.
In the past, the lab has been asked to make determinations in many high-profile cases, including the alleged gang rape of a 22-year-old woman by police officers in 2009.
"[If they hired] people who are not qualified, that is really a concern because then there would be a question mark about all their investigations," said Narayanareddy.