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Invaluable humans

The Renaissance Man is dead, and the human body is up for sale. From a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu to an egg harvesting lab in Cyprus, investigative journalist Scott Carney traces the journey of human body parts and reveals how the red market exploits and devalues humanity

The Red Market: On the trail of the world's organ brokers, bone thieves, blood farmers and child traffickers, isn't an easy book to read. And, once you've finished reading it, you wouldn't find yourself chuckling over a snatch of conversation in the book while chopping onions some days later.



But it isn't an easy one to put down, either. Scott Carney, a 33 year-old American journalist who has trained as an anthropologist and is at present, contributing editor for Wired, a popular technology magazine, was led to write this book after an American student, attending a field trip to Varanasi organised by Carney, committed suicide.

"I spent three days with her corpse staving off the inevitable process of decay. It was closer than I had every been to a body before, and as she cooled and changed colour, I confronted the physical nature of mortality. More than anything else, her death taught me that every corpse has a stakeholder. [...] This was the beginning of my own understanding of the international market for human bodies," Carney writes in the first chapter.

The stakeholders, Carney refers to, include everyone from the officials who transport the body to the medical fraternity that examines it, and the family that 'owns' it. Everyone wants a piece of the body -- and in an age where effective organ transplants and transfusions can lend a new lease of life to someone, often, a corpse has more value than its living counterpart.

In the book, Carney examines the exploitation engendered by the burgeoning red market. Unlike a black market that deals with contraband items, or a gray market that deals in illegally-obtained items, red market refers to the market of human body parts. Everything from tissue and corneas to pituitary glands, kidneys, bones, human fat, blood and children, sell in this market.
 
Carney points out how the effort to obscure the supply chain and source of these organs and body parts -- used in research, transplants, and for medical studies -- leads to a situation where the human body is given a commercial value and poor people in developing nations, including India, China, and Eastern Europe, are exploited.

In one chapter, Carney describes his visit to Tsunami Nagar, a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu, where an entire village of kidney donors reside. Called Kidneyvakkam, its residents, predominantly the women, have been selling their kidneys to make money, ever since they were displaced by the Tsunami in 2004.

"Why should someone in a slum be looked at as an amalgamation of body parts just because diabetes is skyrocketing in India?" asks Carney over Skype from California, United States. "That's a lot of kidney failure, and (in India) you have a lot of poor people willing to sell their kidneys," he adds.

What makes matters murkier is the tribe of middlemen, or kidney brokers, who con villagers to sell their kidneys with the promise of more money than what they eventually offer. Governmental inaction makes redressal impossible for the villagers.

"I'm not just talking about the West exploiting poor countries. Indians hire more surrogates and sell more kidneys to Indians than anyone else," Carney points out. Part of the solution lies in re-humanising the body, says Carney. "We have begun to think of kidneys as a commodity. What we don't think is that these kidneys come from somewhere. In fact, we are never taught to think of it as someone else's kidney. We can't think of these as disembodied things," he says.

The Red Market by Scott Carney published by Hachette. Rs 550. Available in bookstores

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