Referring to it as horrifying, the award winning investigative journalist and anthropologist who reported from Chennai from 2006-2010, narrates his experience to DTNext in an exclusive interview.
Q. What was the most horrific experience during your stay and investigation in India?
During a trip with my students back in the early 2000s, a student of mine died and I was trying my best to take the body back to her family in the United States. When people around us started haggling over the body of student who committed suicide, I was shocked. It was horrendous. I watched the body — from being something of great value — become an object. The police wanted parts of her brain and liver for testing – maybe for forensic analysis to test for poisoning or intoxication, her parents wanted the body home intact, the hospital did not want to offer its morgue to store her body and the insurance company wanted Rs 3 crore to bring her home to America. Also, journalists, who may have bribed the police to get access, were fighting to get a photo of her body. All in all, it opened my eyes to the fact that a human body can be treated as an object. It was a harrowing experience and to add to it, we ended up having to give over the organs, as we had no choice. They were never returned even though we put in requests.
Q. You say the situation in India is horrendous. How so?
During the course of my investigation, I saw the economics of a human body. In Gorakhpur, people were being kept captive and their blood drained for sale to blood banks. In Chennai, 80 women had their kidneys stolen and none of the real perpetrators were tried or convicted.The skeleton business, which I saw in Kolkata, was largely booming. The red market crimes are so easy to commit and so poorly prosecuted in India. The only victory that we see since the red market came out is that now, surrogate tourism is illegal in India. Everything else continues to remain as bad.
Q. Human trade and export have been banned in India, but it continues to thrive. Where do you think our rule makers are lacking and how is the body business in India different from that in other countries?
You need to open all records for organ transplants, blood transfers etc. for it to be easily traced. One should not have to file an RTI to avail information from the departments concerned. There should be a system of radical transparency with information easily available, instead of someone having to point out the discrepancies. India is not ruled by law as much as by power. While India has a great Constitution, people tend to ignore the law. Those with money and power can do whatever they want. While it is true all over the world that the human flesh moves upwards through the social hierarchy, it is most evident in India.
Q. In your book you say you are worth $ 250,000. How does it feel to have a price put to your body?
It feels reductive. By putting a cost to the body, you are not feeling the actual value of the human being.
Q. It has been almost a decade since your book was published and it created a flutter across the world. Are you still in touch with your sources in India?
It has been so long that I have lost touch. However, I have learnt that since then, the situation has only got worse with the process of procuring a body having become easier. The human body trade is there everywhere. There is an FBI raid every few months in the mortuaries in the United States. However, the situation in India is terrible.