Police in southern India are investigating reports of an illegal kidney donation racket that apparently preys on poor survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami, officials said Wednesday.
There long have been reports some substantiated, others not of poor Indians illegally selling their kidneys. But authorities say the practice appears to have spiked in areas of Tamil Nadu state since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which destroyed fishing fleets here and left tens of thousands of people destitute.
Authorities were tipped off to the latest alleged organ racket by a non-governmental organization that reported that some 150 women in Ernavur, a village built by poor tsunami survivors, had sold their kidneys to raise money over the past two years and that many of them had been never been fully paid.
"We have formed a special team which has started making preliminary inquiries with the women in Ernavur, and will later spread our inquiries to other slums," Chennai Police Commissioner Letika Saran said Wednesday.
While the number of kidneys sold in Ernavur, about 12 kilometers (7 miles) north of Chennai, Tamil Nadu's capital, is high, the demand for kidneys exists in the state.
P. Vijay Lakshimi, who chairs the state committee that authorizes transplants, said about 60 to 70 kidneys are transplanted a month in Tamil Nadu.
It's widely believed that not all are obtained legitimately, and a government official investigating the reports, M.S. Sangeetha, called poor tsunami survivors "easy prey" because selling kidneys was the only way they could come up with money "to meet an emergency."
She said nearly all those who were believed to have sold their kidneys are women, who often occupy the lowest rungs of the village social ladder.
Many of the women said they had been promised up to 100,000 rupees (US$2,250; Ђ1,750) for posing as relatives of the ill and going to Chennai hospitals to have one of their kidney's removed.
But there have been complaints from people who say they have gotten less than half that sum.
"I was told to pose as the aunt of a 15-year-boy waiting for a donor in a hospital," said Muthamma, 35, who like many in the area goes by just one name.
But Muthamma said she was paid only 25,000 rupees (US$562; Ђ437), adding that she had to spend 10 days at the hospital where she had her kidney removed, reports AP.
While parts of India's economy are booming, many of its more than 1 billion inhabitants still live in dire poverty. Some 400 million Indians live on less than US$1 per day.
Sangeetha said the combination of poverty and the high demand for organs made the area ripe for exploitation.
"At any given time there are at least 40 patients waiting for donors in the various hospitals in the city. It is this demand for kidneys and the poverty in slums that is exploited by the hospitals and their agents," she said.