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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/ A Ganesh Nadar in Chennai

'I gave up a kidney because I had no choice'

February 05, 2007

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For the authorities, it is a crime -- to be investigated, and stamped out.

For the media, it is the day's sensation -- to be front-paged today, forgotten tomorrow.

For those in the centre of the storm -- mostly poor fisherwomen -- it is another stumbling block in the way of what they are attempting so desperately to do: survive. No matter what it takes, no matter what you lose.

Shanthi is a case in point. The 36 year old, from Tondiarpettai in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, was abandoned by her husband and left with three children to feed.

Selling fish was all she knew to do, so she borrowed money -- at the exorbitant rate of Rs 30 per day interest; she used that money to buy fish, and hawked it door to door.

The proceeds barely managed to put food in her children's bellies and a roof over their heads; the loan remained unpaid, the interest mounted.

That was when she came across a good Samaritan. You can get out of debt, he told her, and earn up to Rs 40,000. All you have to do in return is to give up a kidney.

It was all laid on nice and smooth. She took a train to Madurai, and was admitted to a hospital she doesn't recall the name of.

For close to a month, she underwent a battery of tests -- and then, one day, she was operated on. A few days of post-operative recuperation later, she returned, richer by Rs 35,000. The broker had deducted Rs 5,000 from the promised fee, as his cut.

It all seemed natural enough, she says, showing off her scar; after all, there were several other women in hospital at the time, for the same reason, including three from Chennai. They were all, she recalls, between 20 and 30 years old.

She paid off her debts and, with the money that remained, went back to work buying and selling fish. Thus she survived, for 18 more months, before the money ran out.

By then, however, two of her children had begun work at a factory that manufactures stainless steel vessels. The elder gives her Rs 300 each week; the younger contributes Rs 200; between them, the three ensure the family continues to survive.

"I did it because I needed the money," Shanti says. "I had no other choice at that time'.

She has no regrets, she says; this, after all, is the way of her world. You fight against the odds, you snatch a day here, a month there, any way you can, and every extra day survived is a bonus.

This is why she cannot understand the fuss being made of the 'kidney trade' now, by the media, by the police.

"They have taken photographs of the victims and splashed them all over the newspapers," she says, suggesting that a perfectly innocent trade -- you give up something you don't need, and get in return the money to survive -- was being demonised.

"Those women cannot go out of their homes now," she says, referring to those women who allowed themselves to be photographed by the media.

Before she spoke to this reporter, she insisted that she could not be photographed.

"Are you sure the police will not come looking for me because I spoke to you?" she asked, before agreeing to tell her story.

Shanti is the tip of a very large, very ugly iceberg investigators of the state Criminal Investigation Department are seeking to uncover, in Chennai and Madurai.

The racket, the police believe, seeks to prey on the poor, especially the fisherfolk in Chennai whose already precarious lives were further disrupted by the 2004 tsunami.

Refuge centres for those affected by the tsunami are everywhere, in Tamil Nadu. Kargil Nagar in Ennore, North Chennai, has one such, housing 2,000 families.

Mary Stella, a social worker attached to the NGO Karunalaya, says that in this shelter alone, an estimated 40 women, and three men, have sold their kidneys.

Don't blame the tsunami, she says -- only ten women sold their kidneys after that disaster, the rest were victims not of a freak wall of water, but that far deadlier killer, poverty.

Stella reels off case studies. Like Muthammal, 34, from Eranavoor, who sold her kidney in 2003, again in a hospital in Madurai. She was paid Rs 40,000; the broker also promised her Rs 3,000 each month for a few months.

Once the deed was done, though, he became scarce -- she managed to meet him just once

and on that occasion, he fobbed her off with Rs 300.

Malar Muthaiya sold her kidney on January 10, 2005 -- 11 days after the tsunami ravaged her fishing colony. She was promised Rs 40,000 but, after being operated on in a hospital in Chennai, was given just Rs 35,000.

There are quite a few others, in this shelter and elsewhere, who have undergone tests in hospitals in Chennai and Madurai, and were on the verge of handing over kidneys for cash when the news broke in the media.

With the police sniffing around, the brokers have all vanished, and the trade has ended, at least for now.

Good news for the guardians of law and order, but for those desperate poor who measure their survival in snatched hours, the worst possible setback.

The Rediff Specials