Struggling to make ends meet, some Indian farmers are illegally selling their own blood to survive.
Desperate times in India are pushing poor farmers to desperate measures. In a country with a chronic shortage of blood in the health care system, many facilities are turning a blind eye to the fact that buying blood is illegal. Some say blood is the new cash crop of India.
"I was working as a labourer in Jhansi for survival," a farmer who goes by the single name, Karna, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "When my son fell ill, I had no other option but to sell my blood for his treatment." The 60 year old farmer from northern India, unable to make a living from his drought stricken land or as a laborer, was paid 1,200 rupees (about $17.50) for two bottles of his blood.
A 1996 case decided by the Supreme Court of India banned paying for blood, along with unlicensed blood banks, but thanks to an unrelenting demand the market still persists, underground.
The unregulated blood market obviously has health officials worried about the spread of disease. "I've seen patients being transfused directly from a donor, without any testing of their blood," Dr. JS Arora, general secretary of the National Thalassemia Welfare Society, told the BBC.
Even more concerning, though, is the victims whose blood is taken against their will. Scott Carney wrote a book on the subject that documents a case where 17 poor migrants were lured to a house under false pretenses. At first, the victims were paid a low rate for their blood but, as they grew weaker, they were locked inside and forced to give blood three times per week for years at a time. A person should donate blood only once every eight to 12 weeks, says the Red Cross.
The blood was sold to local hospitals and blood banks for $18 a unit, which is 15 times the government rate. "Initially, they did it willingly," Neha Dixit, who covered the story for Tehelka magazine, told the BBC. But “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."
Carney writes that the problem is that Indians rarely give blood voluntarily. Citing one expert, he writes “many local people here are superstitious and believe that losing bodily fluids will make them weak for the rest of their lives.”
With a population of 1.2 billion people, India needs 12 million units of blood annually but only collects 9 million, creating a strong market demand to fill the 25 percent deficit, according to Reuters. The World Health Organization says every country should have at least a blood reserve of at least one percent. Traditions and superstitions against exchanging blood with people of different castes also contribute to the shortage.
According to the BBC, there are no official statistics on India’s illegal blood market. “But if we were to take as a rough calculation the three million units needed in India, multiplied by its street value of $15, that suggests that it could be worth as much as $45 million.”
Years of poor crop yields in India have caused unemployment and poverty to soar and pushed farmers into a state of desperation. A third successive year of drought forced farmer Lakhan Ahirwar to sell his blood when he couldn't find other work. "I could not find any work for almost five days," he told Reuters. "What should I do? I had to feed my children."
Poverty among farmers has become so bad that officials are seeing a spike in suicides among the rural poor. One local expert told Reuters that about two farmers per day, on average, are committing suicide in just one region of India. “Crop losses and worries over debt are the main reasons,” wrote Reuters. “For the elderly who cannot find work in the cities, selling blood and begging are perhaps the only choices left.”