In the latest issue of Wired Magazine, Scott Carney says:
India has long been the world’s primary source of bones used in medical study, renowned for producing specimens scrubbed to a pristine white patina and fitted with high-quality connecting hardware. In 1985, however, the Indian government outlawed the export of human remains, and the global supply of skeletons collapsed. Western countries turned to China and Eastern Europe, but those regions produce relatively few skeletons. They have little experience producing display-quality specimens, and their products are regarded as inferior.
His piece on the illegal trade of human skeletons in Calcutta is absolutely riveting if a bit gory in parts. Five doctors in my immediate family and I had no idea about any of the things he writes about. I doubt they had any either. Why is that?
Perhaps it’s because we like to create a culture of silence about things like this. Had this story appeared on the front page of an Indian newspaper, how many of us would have cared to read it? Some would have shrugged philosophically and moved on (“What can one do, after all?”); others would have been offended that such a thing was plastered so prominently (“These are not the sort of things one wants to see first thing in the morning” / “What if children saw?” / “These things only portray us in a bad light” etc); and a whole lot of us would have simply skipped over it (“What is the latest theory about the new Indian cricket coach who is yet to arrive or do anything? I’m sure I hate him already.”).
And yet, this is a story that says so much about us: a colonial era practice (yes, the British were once again the first to think of utilizing Calcutta one great resource: human beings) that became a multi-million dollar business until it collapsed under allegations of wrong doing (the skeletons of children apparently fetch better prices) before flourishing in the black thanks to a system that chose to look elsewhere. After all, when real, live people are being harmed every day, especially in a metropolis like Calcutta, who has the time or energy to look into the illegal export of a bunch of bones?
In many ways, this article is a companion piece to the one Carney wrote before, about the black market organ trade in Chennai:
A member of the Transplant Authorization Committee, which is in charge of enforcing the ban on commercial transplants, admitted to Wired News on condition of anonymity that the government colluded with brokers to circumvent the laws and authorize thousands of illegal transplants. He claimed it was the only way to save lives.
Realistically speaking, doctors will continue to need human skeletons to practice on and the general public will need organs to replace the ones that are failing. And when they can’t get their hands on this legally, they will buy it. And in a country like India, however much it may have improved over the last few years, for some time to come we’re going to find people who’re ready to sell themselves for a bite to eat – if not for themselves, then their families at home.
It sounds like the plot of some futuristic horror story: a society where the lower classes are bred to replenish the youth of the upper classes (actually, I could swear that really is the plot of some book I’ve read. Yaaargh, now it’s going to drive me crazy till I remember which one it was) but this is real life. Those women in the organ trade story, for example, were survivors of the tsunami who sold their kidneys because the government didn’t come through on the aid that was promised them.
So what does one do in this situation? I don’t know. The obvious solution (launch organ drives and establish an organ registry backed up with strict punishment under the law for medical practitioners who facilitate illegal trade) seems more than a little simplistic and doomed to failure. Not to mention tried, tested and failed – at least the law part of it.
India runs on the principle of “adjust” – we’ve been living with ineptitude and discrimination for so long that we’ve all figured out how to work the system. The reason the police couldn’t be less bothered about things like graverobbing and organ selling is because there’s no use being exercised about things like that – unless some terrifically rich kid decides to sell his kidney for some ready cocaine money and gets busted on national TV, nobody is going to give a crap about who did what to whom. And on the off chance somebody did care, they’d have to face years in court. Only to find out twenty years into the process that the buyer’s mommy’s uncle’s son-in-law’s neighbour’s classmate is the son of this super influential politico who’s convinced the local police station to lose the paperwork. Next!
And how many people do you know who’re on the organ donation list? Horror stories always begin so innocuously.
PS – for those who relish the irony of such situations, the pic is of British artist Damien Hirst’s $100 million diamond encrusted platinum cast of an 18th century skull – For the Love of God.