By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
GURGAON, India, Jan. 29 -- Three weeks ago, Mohammad Saleem, 33, agreed to work at a construction site in this bustling city near New Delhi. A house painter with an extended family of eight, he was drawn here by the promise of an extra dollar in his daily wage. After a few days of waiting in a blue-and-white bungalow for work to begin, Saleem said, he was forcibly anesthetized by two masked men.
"When I woke up after several hours, I felt a pain in my right side," Saleem recalled, sitting on a metal cot in a city hospital ward. "The men said, 'We have removed your kidney, and you better not breathe a word about it.' My life broke into pieces when I heard that."
Saleem was the latest in a long list of poor laborers who had come to Gurgaon to work and lost their kidneys as a result. Police say they were victims of a major organ-trafficking racket based in this city for nearly a decade.
The scam was discovered last week after police, acting on a tip from a middleman, raided the bungalow where Saleem had been held. They said they found a labyrinthine kidney bazaar run by a group of men posing as doctors. Five suspects were arrested.
Since then, police from several Indian provinces have launched a massive joint investigation into the alleged traffickers, who police said robbed poor people of their kidneys and sold them to rich patients around the world.
Several people who were believed to be among the intended recipients of the organs have been detained, including four Greeks and a couple from New York who are of Indian origin. They had all come to India on tourist visas and were found staying at a guesthouse near the bungalow.
Investigators said they believe the trafficking network includes buyers from Canada, Greece, Saudi Arabia and Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Given India's sagging medical infrastructure, cases of kidney trafficking are not unheard-of here. Hospital facilities for the storing and transporting of organs remain inadequate, and poor Indians lured by the prospect of extra money ensure the traffickers a continuous supply of fresh kidneys. According to a government estimate, more than 100,000 kidney transplants are needed in India every year, but only 5,000 are performed legally.
"People think getting a new kidney is like changing the car tire, after which the car will run full-steam," said Sandeep Guleria, who heads the kidney transplant unit at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. "In much of the country, dialysis facilities are poorly developed. It is a cheaper alternative [to] recurring expenses for the family."
Transplant operations are complicated, and recipients need to be closely matched to donors to reduce the risk of rejection. After receiving a new organ, patients initially require intensive care and long-term treatment with powerful anti-rejection drugs.
Some analysts say trafficking is made worse by the absence of regulation of legal donations. The Indian government is currently considering launching a full-fledged national organ transplant program that would simplify the procedures for such donations.
According to police, the racket uncovered last week was run by Amit Kumar, who was among those who posed as doctors and who had previously been accused of running a trafficking operation based elsewhere in the country. He is still at large.
"This was a racket run by a man who has been on the run for about 15 years," said Manjit Singh Ahlawat, Gurgaon's joint commissioner of police. "He used to charge about 15 lakh rupees [$37,500] from rich patients around the world and pay about 50,000 rupees [$1,270] to the laborer after forcibly removing the kidney. We have seized about 5,000 documents from his office that tell us about the wide network he operated of buyers, middlemen, diagnostic centers, doctors and laborers. He has operated under five different names, various passports, and had 12 bank accounts."
The police have seized Kumar's computers and are decoding his e-mail accounts. Five laborers, three of whom had lost kidneys, were also rescued from the bungalow.
"When I learned my kidney has gone, I thought I was going to die. I cried nonstop," Saleem said, lifting his shirt to show a white bandage. "But now I wish I had just died. How can I support my family now and bring home the bread? I cannot do heavy construction work now -- I feel weak and dizzy all the time."
Next to Saleem's bed were two other laborers who had lost their kidneys last week: Shakeel Abdullah, 28, and Naseem Ahmad, 25.
According to police, Kumar has run the kidney racket on the same pattern since the early 1990s. He and his associates were first detained in Mumbai.
"We first arrested him in 1994," Rakesh Maria, Mumbai's joint commissioner of police, said in a telephone interview. "He was operating under the name Santosh Rameshwar Raut back then. He was supplying poor people's kidneys to clients in Yemen, Malaysia, Turkey and Greece."
After being released on bail, Kumar vanished. "Later he moved to different cities in the north and south," Maria said. "He kept changing his identity and continued his trade. The police booked him several times, but he kept escaping."
Maria's team is now collaborating with the Gurgaon police in the investigation. Authorities have also requested help from Interpol.
Staff writer Rob Stein in Washington contributed to this report.