AS SOON AS PANKAJ SHARMA saw five passengers in a cab, one of whom was on a saline drip, he had a hunch about what was happening. A constable at the Ranipur police station in Haridwar district, Sharma had overheard a conversation about some “illegal going-ons” at a nearby hospital when he had stopped by a roadside teashop the previous month. His team from the Uttarakhand police had then traced these rumours to the Century Gangotri Hospital in Mazri Grant, a village 30 kilometres from the state capital, Dehradun.
Late into the night of 10 September 2018, as buses and lorries zipped past them on the Dehradun–Delhi highway, Sharma and six other police officers frisked the five passengers. Two of the passengers had six-inch surgical scars above their waists. These seemed to be marks of a recent kidney transplant, but they would not say. Finally, as the police detained them, one of the passengers started crying and pleading that the police let them go. “We haven’t even been paid yet,” he said.
In the subsequent weeks, the police discovered that the Century Gangotri Hospital had been the site of nearly five hundred illegal kidney transplants between 2016 and 2017. People from poorer parts of India were lured, duped or coerced into selling one of their kidneys to patients with renal failure from India, the United States, Europe and West Asia. One of the passengers detained by Sharma and his colleagues, for instance, was a woman from West Bengal who needed money for her daughter’s medical treatment. Another was an unemployed youth from Gujarat, who had been conned with a job offer at the hospital.
The residents of Mazri Grant were shocked. They had always taken pride in their village’s quiet, peaceful temperament, several residents told me. Theirs was a sharp contrast to the neighbouring city of Muzaffarnagar, with its high crime rates. As a local schoolteacher put it, “In Mazri Grant, if you cause a street accident, people give first aid instead of beating you up.” But the two-storeyed hospital—clad in brick red and beige, lined with potted plants and ornamental grass—always did seem odd. It advertised itself as a “charitable” endeavour, but had bouncers at its doors. The staff of the Uttaranchal Dental and Medical Research Institute, in whose premises it was based, was forbidden from interacting with its counterparts at the hospital. Even the cafeteria was partitioned into two. And yet, the hospital seemed to be doing rather well. When I visited the institute last February, some of the students staying on the campus told me that they would often notice visitors coming in high-end cars late at night. Amit Kumar, for one, would usually turn up in a Mercedes.