Over the past 18 months, millions across the world have succumbed to the COVID-19 pandemic, and millions more have been driven to poverty trying to ensure survival. For people who were already living a hand-to-mouth existence, this pandemic has been nothing less than a relentless, never-ending catastrophe. In India, the marginalised sections have been left wondering what lies ahead as they battle chronic unemployment with little hope in these desperate times.
For some residents of Dharamtul village in Assam’s Morigaon district, they will have to face all these hurdles and much more without a kidney: Reason? From outright poverty to desperation and much more.
Watch the story of Subanta Das and others in this special EastMojo documentary:
Like millions across the globe, 37-year-old Das, a daily wager from Dakhin Dharamtul village in Assam’s Morigaon district, was also left jobless after being hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On a fateful day in April 2020, Das, along with his wife Sabitri, packed his bags and moved to Kolkata. He was promised Rs 5 lakh and quality treatment for his 9-year-old son, who was in dire need of a coronary bypass surgery on reaching Kolkata. All he had to do was donate one of his kidneys. With 5 mouths to feed, loans to repay and the life of his 9-year-old son hanging by a thread, Das could not find a better solution to his problems than sell off a kidney.
“I had spoken to a person named Ramen Medhi who offered to connect me with people through whom I could donate one of my kidneys. They also promised to get my son treated. I was there for 6 to 7 months and after being cleared by the doctors they conducted the operation on me,” says Das.
Soon after the surgery, Das was paid Rs 1.5 lakh and was asked to return home. He was denied the rest of the money which was promised before he moved to Kolkata. Das had no other option but to return home.
A nexus in the making
Even after coming back home, Das was still hopeful of getting the rest of the money. He kept pursuing the racketeers but never got a reply.
Das’s financial condition was not unique. Most living in Dakhin Dharamtul are daily wage earners and were equally hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that followed.
Most in the village do not even have a ration card or BPL (Below Poverty Line) card. Hit by poverty, micro-finance loan debts and their struggle to make ends meet blinded the villagers to the risks involved in donating an organ.
The time was ripe for the racketeers to take advantage of the unassuming villagers who were now in dire need of money to survive; their network amplified as more people wanted to donate their kidneys and be part of the illegal kidney transplant racket. Donors would be promised Rs 4.5 lakh to Rs 5 lakh and all expenses for the next 7 to 8 months, including travel to Kolkata would be borne by the racketeers.
Within a year, Dakhin Dharamtul village had become the epicentre of a well-organised illegal organ trade. Between April 2020 and July 2021, 11 people from the village sold their kidneys.
However, the first seeds of the illegal organ trade racket were planted about 7 years ago, when four from the family of one Janata Das, all residents of Dakhin Dharmtul village, became the first ones to travel to Kolkata. Janata Das and his family members have been absconding ever since news reports of the racket broke across the country.
The Kolkata connection
Police sources said about 30 people from the village were approached by the racketeers. 29-year-old Nitu Mandal, a carpenter by profession, was among the few lucky ones who escaped with all his organs intact. He was in Kolkata when the news of the illegal organ trade racket involving his village broke out. Mandal had travelled to Kolkata in April 2021 and had stayed in the city’s Mukundapur area for around 3 months.
“After reaching Kolkata, I met one Bikram Das. They then took me to the place I would be staying at. There we were not in contact with just one person. Around 10-15 people would come and contact me. They won’t speak in Assamese but rather use Hindi. One day I met a person from Assam and asked his name. In response, he said I didn’t have to know his name and should just get done with my work and leave. I used to feel scared. Even my wife said so. I also came across news from here. So I decided to leave,” Mandal mentioned to EastMojo.
Mandal said he was given a daily allowance of Rs 300. But it would be a new person visiting him every day. During his stay in Kolkata, he managed to save Rs 4,500 from the daily allowance and used it to escape from Kolkata.
As mentioned by most from Dakhin Dharamtul, the base of this massive illegal organ trade for now has been established as Kolkata. Villagers have talked about being taken to the Rabindranath Tagore International Institute of Cardiac Sciences in Mukundapur in Kolkata.
Although any proper link with the hospital is yet to be established, the Morigaon police have taken up the matter with authorities in Kolkata. Police are also looking into the documentation process involved in illegal kidney sale in the name of ‘donation’.
A growing network?
Morigaon police got its first breakthrough on July 10, when a joint effort along with the village defense party of Dakhin Dharamtul helped them nab one Lilimai Boro, her son and their accomplice Ramen Medhi. Boro was caught by the villagers while she was trying to get one Subanta Das to convince his wife Sabitri to donate one of her kidneys. A case (no 432/21) has been registered at Jagiroad police station under human trafficking sections.
While Dharamtul was still in the headlines, similar cases of illegal kidney sale surfaced from Assam’s Dibrugarh and Nagaon districts. This time, the target were poor tea garden workers, who were offered a handsome amount for selling their kidneys.
So far, five people have been arrested from the three districts even as no major breakthrough has been reached yet.
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