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India's medical tourism: a tale of tainted blood, stolen kidneys and riches offshore

Yusof Sulaiman, eTN Asia/Pacific  Nov 03, 2008

India's medical tourism has taken a hard knock in the tourism industry following the release of an Indian government "money trail" investigation linking it to a "multimillion dollar" international racket, spanning all the way to Hong Kong and Australia.

The scheme was exposed in January following complaints by impoverished Indian laborers who claimed doctors in the New Delhi suburb of Gurgaon had removed their kidneys "illegally.”

News reports from India say India's Enforcement Directorate, the government agency probing the alleged racket, has been granted permission by a New Delhi court to follow the trail of part of the US$100 million in offshore bank accounts and properties "racket kingpin" Amit Kumar is alleged to have amassed in banks in Hong Kong and Australia.

Issuing his ruling on the issuance of letter of rogatory, which will allow authorities in other countries to collect evidence in a criminal case, Judge A K Pathak said, the letter to the competent authorities in Hong Kong and Australia will identify the ill-gotten money earned through unlawful means and for collection of evidence. "This is a fit case."

Kumar and his associates, according to Indian authorities, are alleged to have profited from performing more than 500 kidney transplant surgeries in the last decade by "procuring" organs for "paltry" sums from poor people and transplanting them on wealthy "clients".

In a "medical oversight,” opposition lawmakers in India claim poor, unemployed laborers were held "captive" after being offered $6 a day while their blood was drained for sale to private clinics. "No one pays so much money to an illiterate person like me," Durga Prasad told police investigating the blood racket.

Earlier this year, police in the town of Gorakhpur, in West Bengal, raided a home where doctors were allegedly drugging the poor who had willingly sold their blood, but also had their kidneys stolen without their knowledge. When they asked for money they were beaten, claimed the victims.

Currently in an Indian jail, the legal move follows the arrest of Kumar in a Nepalese resort on February 7, along with " at least" eight others involved in the racket.

Since his arrest, Kumar has been charged among others for wrongful confinement, causing hurt by dangerous weapons, cheating and criminal conspiracy under the Indian Penal Code.

The transplant racket served international clients from the UK, US, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Arab states. "The clients flew into India as tourists and underwent transplants in New Delhi and in the suburbs, according to the police indictment.

According to the Indian Express Group, in 2003 a "multi-core racket" involving about 480 illegal human organ transplants were "unearthed" in New Delhi.

"Amritsar is the hub of India's organ trade. Top doctors work in connivance with bureaucrats and politicians. It is synonymous with kidney scams, and has become the 'kidney bazaar' of India."

The medical establishment's complicity and lack of proper oversight over private hospitals and clinics has now raised serious concerns about India's so-called position as a leading destination for medical tourism, said an Indian lawmaker. "Doctors and middlemen with active involvement of bureaucrats were running the racket."

"It is a heinous crime," claimed Radha Agarwal, a doctor and an opposition lawmaker from Gorakhpur. "The doctors were literally playing with the lives of the people. We do not know how many people might have contacted diseases after transfusion of these blood, some of which might have been from drug addicts."

"A lot of money is involved in this racket," said retired judge Ajit Singh Bains, who heads the Punjab Human Rights Organization (PHRO ) which had carried out its own investigation into the human organ sale scandal. "The high and mighty take advantage of legal anomalies."

PHRO has filed a legal writ in the Punjab and Haryana High Court against SIT, claiming the agency "failed to nab the judicial officers, political leaders, lawyers and other influential persons."

The middlemen who are freed, doctors who are on bail or released, were also found involved in other such rackets elsewhere, said PHRO principal investigator, Sarbjit Singh Verka. "There is no end to the organ transplant business."

India's medical tourism: a tale of tainted blood, stolen kidneys and riches offshore
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