Fighting criminals tooth and nail | Mumbai news

Mumbai: Thirteen years ago, Dr Hemlata Pandey chose to head overseas to pursue her dream of a career in forensic odontology, which involves examination and evaluation of dental evidence in criminal justice cases. Back then, no Indian university offered such a course. However, her return to India was less than smooth. Although she had a Master’s degree from the University of South Wales and a postgraduate diploma in forensic human identification from London’s Royal College of Physicians, Pandey struggled to find her bearings here as dental evidence was not being used to help solve criminal cases.

Now, in her 10th year as a forensic odontologist at the King Edward Memorial Hospital, Parel, Dr Pandey, has played a vital role in over 300 cases involving dental evidence and forensic facial reconstruction. She has helped solve more than 50 cases of sexual assaults, child abuse and domestic violence, with her expertise of analysing bite marks, dental and jaw structures and through facial reconstruction.

Dr Pandey, who grew up reading books by Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes, said she was always passionate about things related to crime, suspense and thriller. But it was only after reading a chapter in Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS) on forensic odontology that she thought she could make a career of it. “The BDS curriculum had the chapter but no one taught us because there was no one in India to teach it. We were told that the chapter was not important from an exam point of view. But I read it anyway. It led me to pursue my masters in the subject abroad,” she said.

Dr Pandey is now chief faculty for the Indian board of forensic odontology and conducts fellowship courses at Maulana Azad College of Dental Sciences, New Delhi and DY Patil University, Navi Mumbai. She is also a TEDx speaker and conducts lectures and workshops on forensic odontology for dentists, students as well as police officers.

While struggling to find her base in forensic odontology, Dr Pandey said she got her first breakthrough within a few days of joining KEM Hospital in September 2013. Her first case was of a 40-year-old rag picker who was raped by nine people. “There were bite marks on her. I collected dental evidence from the survivor and all the suspects who were arrested, analysed the injuries and submitted my report. The court accepted my evidence,” she said.

The next turning point in her career was when she did the first facial reconstruction in 2017 and helped solve a case that was otherwise cold for nine months within three days. She used mathematical calculations to replicate a skull of a deceased man. It helped the Ambernath police identify the victim and the case was solved in three days, said Dr Pandey.

Hit by the import of material used for manual facial reconstruction from the US during the pandemic, Dr Pandey underwent a training in 3-D Digital Forensic Facial Reconstruction Techniques and is now looking forward to solving more cases using the new technology. In January this year, the technology helped facial reconstruction of an unidentified female body brought to KEM Hospital by Mankhurd police station.

Dr Pandey, who is in her third trimester, plans to work till the last day of her pregnancy. She is also on the verge of completing her PhD.

Dr Harish Pathak, dean (Academics) and head of the forensic medicine department at KEM hospital, who played a key role in the empaneling Dr Pandey at KEM Hospital 2013, said teeth are the last thing to be destroyed in the human body. “While the rest of the body can be burnt at 600 degrees, teeth can be destroyed at nothing less than 1000 degrees. In mass disasters or criminal cases, it is the teeth which assists in identification. Dr Pandey’s presence in our department has strengthened our forensics team,” he said.

Dr Ashith Acharya, professor and head of the Department of Forensic Odontology, SDM College of Dental Sciences and Hospital, Dharwad, Karnataka, who has seen the forensic odontology journey in India since 2002 (that’s when he returned to India with a degree of forensic odontology from Australia), said the subject has been gaining more and more interest in India, although full-time education opportunities are still rare. “Forensic odontology has achieved many milestones and Dr Pandey has been a part of many of them. Also, her being in Mumbai has given much needed focus to the subject,” he said. Dr Acharya, whose help was sought in the 2012 Nirbhaya case, said the age, sex and sometimes identification of a person can be done within minutes by a forensic dentist expert as compared to DNA tests that can take a few days.

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