Asia’s biggest kidney harvester T Rajkumar Rao, who grew up reading Phantom comics and watching Amitabh Bachchan blockbusters, has conned over 15,000 debt-ridden farmers, Tsunami sufferers and impoverished tea garden workers to build his Rs 75 crore empire.
This business, admitted Rao during his interrogation, continued for almost two decades till one day, he — almost like the elusive sandalwood smuggler Veerappan — walked into a carefully laid police trap.
Investigations reveal Rao and his partner Dipak Kar, a school dropout, would often travel to neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh to identify gullible victims through his well-oiled network. His group employed a little over 250 people across South Asia (except Pakistan) who would spot “potential fodder”.
Cops said it was Kar — nicknamed Kaka that translates into Uncle in Bengali — who coordinated with hundreds of these kidney brokers across the Indian subcontinent, fuelling an ever-expanding multi-million-dollar black market for the sought-after human organ.
The kidney brokers — actually — catapulted the trade into a new dimension, plugging themselves on Facebook pages as kidney and transplant support groups. Once the demand for a match is relayed to a broker, a single post – looking as if posted by distress relatives — promising monetary compensation in exchange completes the deal. But this process is for those seeking big cash for their kidneys, bulk of the deals happen through nefarious methods that included feeding people poison that would create stomach pains and cramps. Once inside a dispensary, the patients were drugged and kidneys removed.
The South Asia region was divided into five regions where Rao’s brokers would spot people. North had Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh while East (the largest zone) had Bengal, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bihar, Assam, Manipur, Orissa, Jharkhand, Tripura. South had Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, West had Maharashtra and Goa while the Central zone catered to Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. Rao’s illegal business is now counted among the biggest human organ scandals in the world.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates around 2,000 Indians sell a kidney every year. WHO says South Asia is now the world’s leading transplant tourism, with India among the top kidney exporters. Each year more than 2,000 Indians sell their kidneys, with many of them going to foreigners from the United States, Canada, Israel, Britain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
For Rao and Kar, their business – expectedly – grew exponentially.
Rao confessed of his international travels to Dubai, London and Bangkok on holidays. He admitted buying properties and real estate in as many as ten cities across India.
“What was shocking was he (Rao) dealt with all top hospitals across India where doctors did not even bother to ask about the donor (as stipulated by the law),” Joint Commissioner of Delhi Police (Crime Branch) Ravindra Yadav said in a brief interview.
Not just Apollo Hospitals in Chennai and Delhi, Rao confessed supplying kidneys to more than 15 top hospitals across India. “Nowhere he was asked about the donors,” said Yadav.
Officials of the Apollo Hospital in Delhi refused comment, saying the case was sub-judice and their internal investigation was not over.
Strangely, Rao, who had no medical training, often oversaw the surgeries and sipped coconut water with patients, including foreigners from as far away as the US and UK flying in for transplants.
In his confessions to sleuths of Delhi Police, Rao said he made half of his donors part with their kidneys for as lowly as Rs 7,000 and as high as Rs 75,000, taking full advantage of chronic shortage of transplant organs fuelling a lucrative black market trade across South Asia where kidneys are sold to recipients for a little over Rs 35,00,000 each.
India banned human organ trade in 1994, lawbreakers can be jailed up to five years. The law stipulates all transplant centres to have a committee review donations of kidneys by living and unrelated people to make sure they are motivated by altruism rather than commerce.
But illegal organ trade — of which that of kidneys is by far the largest — persists across South Asia.
Not just adults, Rao and his men also preyed on children. The cops – it is reliably learnt – have asked for help from Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi’s NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement) in their attempt to draw up a list of children targeted by Rao for their organs and then killed.
Ever since Rao was arrested, the NGO has told the cops that while locating missing children, it found many dead bodies without vital organs like kidneys. “We have asked for a thorough investigation because we have definite information that all kidney gangs are very active in targeting homeless children,” says Ashok Singh, an activist of the NGO.
Singh found support from Dr Partha Biswas, who said those in the illegal kidney trade are always in demand because “everyone wants a kidney”.
Dr. Biswas said India’s low organ donor rate roughly translates into 200,000 patients seeking a new kidney every year. Around 15,000 can afford treatment but only 7,000 of these can afford transplants. Worse, only 60 get it officially from hospitals. The rest rely on private donations.
“He explored and exploited the system to the hilt because there is nothing as organ donation in India, the perception is lacking,” said Dr Sunil Shroff of the Chennai-based Multi Organ Harvesting Aid Network (MOHAN) which promotes legal organ donation.
A decade old survey conducted among 300 people in Chennai – a favourite hunting ground of Rao – showed 96 per cent of participants sold one of their kidneys to pay off debts for an average Rs 45,000. The report, titled Economic and Health Consequences of Selling a Kidney in India was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
The situation remains the same till date, fully exploited by Rao and his band of men.
Rao, claimed the cops, would often dress up as a representative of a global medical firm keen to help people. His modus operandi was simple, encouraging the poor to part with their kidneys at low cost. For those who were relatively educated, he posed as a CEO of a hospital and paid anywhere between Rs 100,000 - Rs 150,000.
“Most of whom he conned were in desperate need of cash. Many poor labourers were drugged and operated against their wishes, their kidneys used for foreigners desperate for transplants,” said Avtar Singh, an officer in the interrogation team.
Rao’s clients were dodgy doctors keen to buy cheap organs on the black markets. “Doctors want to earn extra cash from patients, they always wait for people like Rao who, in turn, exploit the system to the hilt,” says Ashok Panwar of the National Human Rights Commission.
Panwar said the government must raise its legal donation rates to “stop these horror tales” but it is easier said than done in a country where families traditionally do not donate organs of their recently deceased. “And now, it will be must more difficult because they will think this is a scam.”
Before Rao’s arrest, the most recent case of organ trafficking was in 2008 when cops arrested Amit Kumar, a quack, who illegally removed kidneys from the poor for to high-paying patients in Gurgaon. Kumar, who jumped bail, is said to be hiding in faraway Canada.
But Rao’s case has paled Kumar into a corner. Kumar traded only 600 kidneys, nothing compared to Rao and Kar who grossed over 15,000.
Maybe more, cops are still calling the confessions just the tip of iceberg.