The Indian government had banned export of human remains in 1985 following an uproar over the digging of graves and selling of skeletons and bones. The value of corpses, however, has been high ironically by the consistent demand from medical students and universities for anatomy lessons, and also from the healthcare industry.
“Bodies are sometimes stored instead of being buried or cremated, and the skeletons are sold to private medical collegesfor use in their anatomy departments. We have also heard of the skeletons being taken from Tamil Nadu to Andhra Pradesh,” said a citybased private doctor, who is involved in organ transplantation. Several individuals DTNext spoke to pointed out that the instances of grave robberies continue in the state, though seldom reported.
“The dental college where I studied supplied us with enough and more skulls to practice dentistry, so we had no need to acquire them. But, once when a friend wanted one, she was unable to get it anywhere. She finally visited a cemetery near Nagercoil, where she purchased a skull,” said Priya S (name changed), a dental student.
Similarly, medical students are required to practise on human bodies as part of their course. Many, said those in the know, follow the ‘tradition’ of acquiring a skeleton.
“A friend who studied medicine a few years ago had a skeleton in his cupboard. It frightened his parents, but for him, it was a prized possession,” said Supriya J, who teaches at a city school. Beyond these ‘hobbyists’ and students, there exists rackets dealing in body parts including tendons and ligaments.
The most detailed expose on the network came out about five years ago when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published a damning report detailing the trade across the world, including India.
In the report ‘Skin, bones and tissue for sale: How the dead are being used for grisly trade in human body parts’, the authors described in grisly details as to how tendons and ligaments were harvested to be used in knee repairs, the sale of tissues, and the use of skin to treat burn victims who require procedures including skin grafting.
“The bone is ground down and mixed with chemicals to form strong surgical glues that are advertised as being better than the artificial variety. Distributors of all these manufactured products can be found in several countries, including India. Some are subsidiaries of multinational medical corporations,” the report read.
Kolkata was once the hub for bone traders, who stole bodies from graves to sell them to universities for several years. But the industry shuddered to a halt in March 1985, when a bone trader was arrested for exporting 1,500 skeletons of children. This incident was recounted in investigative journalist Scott Carney’s article, ‘Inside India’s Underground Trade in Human remains’.
Carney had tracked the business in Tamil Nadu, too, as part of the investigation for his book. The glare has pushed it to the underground, but the trade in human organs continues to thrive in many parts of the country.
Even bones see inflation, prices hike from Rs 25K to 1 lakh
From learning about the anatomy to harvesting the skeleton, a human corpse has a number of uses, perhaps a reason why the ‘red market’ has not lost its value.
“Sometimes, relatives who cannot afford to spend money on the burial of their deceased kin, leave the body at the morgue or request the police to bury them. Those bodies are utilised for cadaver dissection in medical colleges,” said Dr Sampath Kumar, a forensic surgeon in a city-based private hospital.
The bodies are also sold to private medical colleges by the government at the rate of around Rs 25,000 per body. But, acquiring bones separately continues to be a challenge, he said.
Dr Kumar said unclaimed bodies cannot be relied on as the only source, as there is always a possibility of it being claimed at some point of time. “Business used to flourish in Mysore Medical College and Gandhi Medical College, Hyderabad until recently,” he added.
“After a human body is dissected, the hospital buries the bodies in their backyards and notes down the date and body number. Exactly after one year, they dig out the remains and sell the bones to medical students,” stated Dr Kumar, adding that the practice is prevalent in all medical colleges, especially in government medical colleges in the state. A government hospital doctor told DTNext that acquiring bones today is more difficult than was the case earlier.
“While the cost of a skeleton used to range between Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 till a couple of years ago, private medical colleges are spending Rs 1 lakh or more to purchase one today,” he said. Incidentally, the business is continuing among medical students despite companies selling replicas that do not look very different from real bones.