Almost five months after authorities in Chennai abandoned any attempt at prosecuting the kidney scandal that has rocked this city, police in Mumbai have arrested a renowned kidney surgeon who has admitted to arranging organ transplants for patients from all over the world. Most of the operations took place at St. Thomas Hospital in Chennai. The Mumbai police say that Palani Ravichandran has preformed between 40 and 100 of the illegal operations every year since 2002.

KN Arun of The New Indian Express reported today that:

A large number of recipients on whom he had preformed kidney transplants were rich patients from abroad, especially the Persian Gulf countries and Malaysia, whom he charges Rs. 10 lakh to 15 lakh ($25,000 – $35,000) each.

Kidney transplants have been a huge problem in Tamil Nadu in the last few year. According to government statistics released by Tehelka, over 2000 people a year sell their kidneys in the city. In most cases brokers offer them several thousand dollars for their donations, but end up swindling the donors out of the lion’s share of the cash. I have written extensively about the issue on this blog and on WIRED News.

But Ravichandran is a different sort of kidney transplant surgeon. His methods are much more sinister than the typical Chennai doctor. It appears that for the last several years he has worked with two local brokers identified by my sources as Bandana Rai and Dipen Rai who rent a string of houses throughout the city to hold potential donors while they await their operations.

Ravichandran and the Rais have been able to escape detection for so long because they do not use local kidney donors. Instead they travel to Nepal and bring back young men and women who are willing to sell their kidneys for cheap. After trafficking the would-be donors across the border near Siliguri, West Bengal, they take a train to Chennai and spend about a week getting the necessary tests for surgery. Afterwards they are promptly send back to Nepal.

Deepak Adhikari who writes for Nepal Weekly, recently wrote a blog post about the Nepal end of the network.

This recent arrest should be a wakeup call to the Chennai authorities who have so far been lackadaisical about pursuing cases of brokered kidney transplants. Police claim that they do not have the legal authority to arrest brokers for violating the Transplantation of Human Organs Act of 1984–and claim that only the department of health and family services has that power. This is, of course, simply an excuse to maintain the status quo.

The truth is that the Chennai police and local government are perfectly happy to let the kidney trade continue because there is political pressure from across the medical spectrum to provide organs for people needing transplants. The government has sheepishly admitted that they are more concerned about wealthy patients than poor kidney donors who get scammed in the transactions.

There are also rampant allegations that members of the police and transplant authorization committee receive large bribes to approve surgeries. One source I spoke with who gave her kidney six months ago said the bribe was $25,000 per committee member–or about $700.

It is also telling that it was the Mumbai police who arrested Ravichandran–it appears that while he has enjoyed a startling amount of immunity from police while he has been working in Chennai.