Would I lie to you, darling, would I?

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In a world where there are no guarantees and there is no trust, Nishita Jha  finds a company selling everyone’s new best friend — the polygraph machine

Illustration: Naorem Ashish

A NON-DESCRIPT basement in New Delhi — sparsely furnished with a desk, a few plastic chairs and a locked cupboard —is the unlikely nerve centre for documenting mistrust. Contrary to its drab exterior, the office is home to the kind of intrigue one lusts for in pulp novels. In a world strife with suspicion, Truth Labs’ polygraph services are extremely popular — used by everyone from couples suspecting infidelity to employers investigating staff.

India’s first independent forensic lab, Truth Labs (TL) was set up to assist victims of injustice who “cannot seek aid from governmental agencies”. KPC Gandhi, former Inspector General of Police, Andhra Pradesh and described on the Truth Labs website as an expert in forensic sciences and ‘Gandhian thought’, elaborates — “People who want to settle family disputes within their families or companies cannot approach forensic laboratories. When the parties involved prefer to keep the matter confidential, for fear of damaging their reputation, they come to us.”

Take for instance, Prakash Tiwari, the owner of a flourishing Chandni Chowk jewellery business, who turned to Truth Labs when two gold chains and Rs. 50,000 went missing from his retail store. After hours of scanning surveillance tapes, his assistant pointed out an employee who appeared to be concealing something in her clothes, while clearing stocks at the end of the day. The grainy CCTV image was not enough to convict the girl. So on a fellow jeweller’s advice Tiwari contacted TL’s team of polygraph experts.

SR Singh, director of TL’s New Delhi branch and former director of the CBI’s Delhi branch, explains that this kind of test is fairly common — an employer suspects one of his staff members of dishonesty, but is unsure of how to confront them without evidence. Truth Labs conducts polygraph tests for an entire department, described as an ‘HR’ exercise — the questions for the suspected employee are specifically designed by a team of polygraph experts, on the employer’s advice, keeping the ‘crime’ in focus. A single polygraph test takes two to three hours and costs Rs. 3,000. Relying on an individual’s physiological symptoms like respiration, perspiration, blood pressure and heart-rate, a lie-detector monitors sudden changes in ‘normal’ physical patterns.

Once Tiwari’s employee was confronted with the polygraph result that ‘confirmed’ her guilt, she broke down and confessed to Tiwari in the presence of two policemen that she had stolen the items and cash — providing clinching evidence for her own arrest.

But this brilliant machine equivalent of the headmaster who could always tell when you were lying — the polygraph — enters a legally murky area precisely for this reason. Delhi-based lawyer Rebecca John Mammen explains that polygraph tests cannot be considered evidence because they have the potential to self-incriminate, something that the Indian constitution does not permit. She adds, “Polygraph testing is not a perfect science, unlike ballistics and fingerprint evidence. It is based on the assumption that a person’s heartbeat will falter when confronted with incriminating facts. But hardened criminals can cheat the test and ordinary people are intimidated by the experience.”

Singh shares stories of couples who approach Truth Labs carrying clothes with suspected semen stains and demand polygraph tests for partners

Since its first branch in Hyderabad in 2007, Truth Labs’ branches in Hyderabad, Bengaluru and New Delhi have solved crimes relating to computer and insurance forgeries, paternity tests, and fingerprint analyses — only the branch in Delhi conducts polygraph tests. But SR Singh is quick to explain, “The test can be conducted at a location of your choice. The machine is fully portable.” He almost expects a sigh of relief.

Another popular service offered by TL’s Delhi branch is the innocuous sounding ‘psychological evaluation’, which consists of pre-employment screening and behavioural profiling, to gauge a candidate’s integrity. A few months into the job, candidates who do not measure up to an employer’s satisfaction on the initial test can be asked to undergo a ‘loyalty’ test, where they are asked to speak about their employers while on the polygraph machine. “An employer can’t fire you on the basis of your result — but it works as a catalyst for promotions or firings,” Singh smiles conspiratorially.

In his mission statement, Gandhi explains that the reason we need an independent forensics lab is to ease the burden of nearly 30 million cases pending in the courts. Stories of delayed hearings and judicial nightmares almost make you feel we are grossly crippled because we only have nine lie-detector experts. Surely we need someone to uphold Satyameva Jayate. A Supreme Court 2010 ruling, which declares evidence based on polygraph tests and narco-analyses inadmissible in court, seems like a dampener, until you realise that most nations agree. The US even has an Employee Polygraph Protection Act whereby employers are specifically banned from interrogating or evaluating employees with a lie detector.

Mammen emphasises the need for India to develop a similar law — “It is one thing for an investigating agency to use these methods, but quite another, if it is used privately. An employer conducting these tests on employees is a serious violation of fundamental rights. Even an investigating agency, which has the statutory right to investigate, is allowed to use these tests only as aids to investigation. They do not translate into evidence in court. How then can it be used by private agencies to control their employees?”

BUT WHEN it comes to quick-fix solutions — something that the Indian middle-class swears by — a few fundamental rights must not stand in the way. Although the polygraph test is only 98 percent accurate and requires the consent of the subject undergoing the test in the form of a signed affidavit — employers can just as easily take an employee’s refusal to undergo the test as a sign of guilt. Singh proudly shows off a copy of the polygraph results of an Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Police from Delhi’s North East Division. The officer was under suspicion of abetting the same crime he was investigating, and his polygraph results led to his release from duty — albeit on a different pretext.

Nor is Truth Labs itself to blame. As Singh shares stories of couples who approach the Labs carrying clothes with suspected semen stains and demand polygraph tests for cheating partners, one has to wonder about our obsession with scripting our own ‘moment of truth’. Citing another case when a family from Mumbai approached TL for a polygraph test after a young bride confessed that her father-in-law had propositioned her, he attributes the popularity of lie detector tests to the fact that people today lack a moral compass. “No one has the time to sit and inculcate morals in the young anymore. Once, if a friend recommended an employee to me, I would not have doubted him. But now, one begins to consider ulterior motives.”

One would not expect anything different from a man who deals with mistrust every day. A conversation with Singh almost makes one wonder what we did before polygraphs entered our lives. But there is also the sneaking suspicion that in spite of our unbeatable scientific solutions, that elusive animal we hope to capture — truth — becomes more elusive than ever.

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