In India, not everyone is benefiting from the boom. Tragically, some people are selling their own body parts to survive. And a scarcity of donors means the grim and illegal organ trade is thriving.
Kala Arumugan lives alone in her tiny, empty apartment in Chennai. Like many Indians who struggle to make ends meet, Kala is constantly in debt, despite selling pretty much everything she has, including her own kidney.
”I went to a broker. He told me that I could sell my kidney. I agreed because I was in a bad situation and my children were small. We did not even have any food to eat,” she said.
When the 2004 tsunami hit the coast of South Asia, Kala was one of hundreds of thousands of people who lost everything. In order to get back on her feet she got a loan that she was later unable to repay.
”We had a lot of debt… I had to borrow money to buy the fishing boat. The people I borrowed money from started asking me for money. They said they would come to our home and embarrass us if we didn't repay the money,” Kala said.
Desperate and vulnerable tsunami survivors soon became the perfect targets for the illegal organ trade in India that has become known as the “Red Market”.
Every year, 100,000 Indians need organ replacements, a demand that drives an illegal supply, with some organs even being sold to a small percentage of desperate transplant tourists.
In1994, the Indian government passed a law meant to regulate organ donation in the country. Each recipient of a transplant was supposed to get an organ through a donor who was known to them in some way. Even though every transplant is supposed to be approved by a committee of doctors, it is almost impossible for anyone to stop money changing hands under the table.
In general, when a recipient finds out that he or she needs an organ donation, they normally approach friends or family for a match.
When those options are exhausted, rogue doctors or hospital staff can introduce the recipient to a broker – usually a former illegal donor who can scout nearby poor neighborhoods for someone who is willing to sell their kidney and go under the knife.
“They are forced to buy kidneys from outside for which they circumvent this law and doctors also turn a blind eye to this happening,” Sundar Avadivelu from the Coalition for Organ Failure Solution said.
The transplants from the donor to the recipient take place in the hospital simultaneously. The donor ends up making a little over $1,000, while the brokers’ profits can be almost double that.
“I went to the broker. He said he would give me 50,000 rupees for my kidney. It was supposed to be 100,000 rupees but the broker cheated us,” Kala Arumugan said
Donors are also frequently robbed of their health.
“Before I used to run around and work a lot. But now, I can't do as much work as I used to. I find it difficult even to lift a pot of water. I can’t go to work. I have severe pain in my abdomen and my chest,” Kalavathy Chinnakuttan, an illegal kidney donor, said.
And while horror stories of the red market are exchanged among locals, those with no options left are forced to take extreme measures, sacrificing their health just to stay alive.