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Blood for sale: India’s illegal ‘red market’

Published: 
Monday, February 9, 2015
Your Daily Health
Selling blood in India is against the law, but there is a huge illegal trade in donations.

In a crowded alleyway sandwiched between the wards of a large government hospital in New Delhi, we’re searching for a blood tout.

One of the hospital’s security guards has instructed us to look for a man with one leg.

We find the tout, Rajesh, sitting on a tattered blanket next to a tea stall drinking milky tea from a flimsy plastic cup as monkeys traverse electrical lines overhead.

Posing as the relatives of an accident victim, we tell him we need three units of blood.

“Three thousand rupees (US$48) per donor,” Rajesh says. “I’ll arrange everything.”

Selling blood and paying donors in India is illegal, but across the country, a vast “red market” proliferates.

Taboos

Blood is in chronic short supply in India, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which stipulates that every country needs at least a one per cent reserve.

India, with its population of 1.2 billion people, needs 12 million units of blood annually but collects only nine million-a 25 per cent deficit.

In summer, the shortfall often hits 50 per cent, leading to a spurt in professional donors cashing in on the needs of desperate patients.

Rajesh used to be a housepainter, but after losing his leg in an accident and spending months recovering at this hospital, he realised he could earn commissions by supplying donors to those in need of blood transfusions in exchange for cash.

India’s lack of a central blood collection agency, along with taboos against exchanging blood with people of different castes, largely accounts for the shortage, experts say.

It fuels a vast illegal market, despite a 1996 Supreme Court ruling that banned paid donors and unlicensed blood banks.

Little has changed since then. Demand still outstrips supply. Private blood banks are legal as long as they obtain a government licence for US$120.

The illicit market in blood has simply moved underground, or in some cases, into the realms of the macabre.

Caged for their blood

In 2008, Hari Kamat, an impoverished artisan from the state of Bihar, was rescued along with 16 other people from a “blood farm” in the town of Gorakhpur, close to India’s border with Nepal.

The victims, all poor migrants, were lured to a house on the pretext of being given jobs and were then convinced to sell their blood for the princely sum of US$7 per unit.

“Initially, they did it willingly,” says Neha Dixit, who covered the story for Tehelka magazine.

“But when I met Hari Kamat in the hospital recuperating, he said that after a while, they became too weak to resist and when they had the energy to try and escape, they were beaten and locked up.”

Hari and the others were forced to give blood three times per week for a period of two and a half years. The Red Cross says donors should give blood only once every eight to 12 weeks.

They were never paid the amount they were promised, and received only a token sum.

“It was actually like a dairy,” says Dixit. “These people were caged, not given enough food and their blood was extracted 16 times a month.”

Dixit says the blood was then sold to local hospitals and blood banks for $18 a unit-15 times the government rate. Some private blood banks were accused of being complicit, putting official stamps and barcodes on these bags of blood.

Professional donors

There are no official statistics on how large India’s illegal blood market is or how many such farms have been uncovered.

But if we were to take as a rough calculation the three million units needed in India, multiplied by its street value of US$15, that suggests that it could be worth as much as US$45 million.

Experts say that even many legal, licensed blood banks, who don’t necessarily pay for blood themselves, still tolerate professional donors.

“You can see by the number of pricks on the arm that they’re a professional donor, but the blood banks don’t bother, they look the other way,” says Sudarshan Agarwal, president of the non-profit Rotary Blood Bank in New Delhi. (BBC)