India can be rightly proud of its status as one of the world’s fastest growing economies but there’s an infamous label that refuses to go away. Despite the country’s best efforts to destroy the black market for illegal organ trade, India retains its reputation as an easy place to buy organs such as kidneys and livers.
Earlier this year, I saw a Bollywood flick titled “Rocky Handsome” starring the burly John Abraham. The film struggled to attract audiences but threw light on the ever-so grave and serious issue of illegal organ trade. The film saw an organised organ mafia active in the Indian state of Goa. The liver was being sold to one district, the heart to another.
There are quite a lot of reasons for this. First of all, the very concept of organ donation is new in India. Furthermore, the western notion of removing organs from people who have already been declared brain-dead is even more unfamiliar. With around 60% of its population still living in villages, the practice of organ donation remains unknown.
The next problem is that not all doctors know how to identify people who can donate their organs. Also, you need to have fairly good connectivity. Imagine that the donor is living in some remote part of Chhattisgarh, now to bring him to Delhi and to take out that organ would be a huge challenge.
A lot of people also believe that organ donation is prohibited in their religion which, in reality, is untrue. No religion prohibits organ donation. And then, there are several horror stories that are a powerful deterrent. Earlier, transplants were misused (they still are) and got a bad name for themselves so, people are scared as well. All of us must have seen it on news channels where patients are admitted to a hospital only to wake and find their organs have been removed.
In the Indian state of Goa, foreign tourists who overstay after the expiry of their visas are targeted by loan sharks and are tricked into selling their kidneys. In 2016, reports also surfaced from Pandoli, a small community in rural Gujarat where villagers were allegedly pressured into selling their kidneys to solve their financial problems.
Diabetes is rife in India. Untreated diabetes leads to organ failure, necessitating a transplant, but there aren’t enough donated organs to go around. Indian hospitals receive countless requests for organs from abroad as well. And so the underground trade persists.
Although such illicit rackets have been flourishing since the early 1990s, the growth and the rising popularity of social media has catapulted the trade into a new direction. Harvesters are openly lurking on dozens of Facebook pages fashioned as kidney and transplant support groups.
The widening hole between the demand and legal supply of organs is being filled by what is believed to be the world’s biggest organ market spanning across India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Iran. Sri Lanka has become the epicenter of illegal kidney transplants over the years.
To promote organ donation as a positive practice, the authorities are enlisting the help of Bollywood actors. Aamir Khan, for instance, has pledged to donate his organs. Earlier this year Sri Lanka suspended all kidney transplants for foreigners after Indian police linked a kidney racket in India to doctors based in Sri Lanka, allegedly operating on Indian donors and recipients.
All of these practices and initiatives have had limited impact on the ever-so-growing business of illegal organ trade primarily because of the fact that trafficking in organ trade is an organised crime. The recruiter who identifies the vulnerable person, the transporter, the hospital staff, the medical professionals etc. The trade is rarely exposed because of the large number of people involved in it.