The Red Market is a strident work-piece of investigative journalism. Scott Carney, the author, is a health reporter who spent a decade in India. Working for a variety of web-based media (he’s a contributing editor at Wired Magazine), he did his best to penentrate the ‘Red Market’; that seedy and illicit world of the illegal trafficking of human organs and assorted detritus. Well, organs mostly and live human beings occasionally. There’s a very fine philosophical distinction between the human being and the human body which is apparent to everyone, but the actual realities of it is something we prefer not to think about, or turn a blind eye to. Carney’s book is a hard-hitting and more than a little disturbing account of what the cost borne by the uneducated or desperate folk brutally taken advantage of is, not to mention being replete with details that would make Alex Riley squirm. This is not a book for the squeamish.
It’s interesting to note though, that an important distinction in human organ trade is relative worth according to nationality. An American body, like the author’s own, is worth around $250,000. The equivalent in India or China would be considerably less, a simple illustration of the law of diminishing returns when supply expands. To a lot of people stuck in grinding poverty in these countries, organ donation is a relatively easy and quick way to make money. But the cost to themselves? Immeasurable. The book focuses on the trade in human organs, but also has a lot to say about the practice of international adoption, which has become quite a lucrative business over the past few decades. Childless couples in America have been willing to pay upto $15,000 to adopt a child from India. This is laudably humane, and indeed is a practice worth encouraging, but unfortunately like any scheme which can do a lot of good, it can and has been exploited by the unscrupulous for dirty profit. The Wall Street Journal called it the price of the priceless. I call it ‘organic capitalism’, which does seem a good way to describe this trade. From fertility clinics in Cyprus to remote villages in the Gujarat province in India where surrogate mothers are paid a fraction of what they would be in America, Carney traces what is a frankly sickening and filthy business of the worst sort of exploitation. Read the book for the gory details.
The counter-argument, of course, is that these people (primarily villagers and women) either know what they’re getting into, or are being compensated far beyond anything they could possibly hope to earn themselves. As Carney describes his encounters with the various faces of this trade, some hidden, some open, and some hiding out in the open, the reader is left puzzling over more than a few moral dilemmas. Is it wrong to trick an entire village in India to selling kidneys in an almost cheery way? It goes something like this: Hey! Sell us yer kidney, dude, you don’t really need it, y’all gonna die of malnootrishun or something anyways. Get a bit of money, support yer farm and family until you die. Good deal, right? Right! And then, of course, the same crippling debt will be passed on to your dependents and the vicious cycle of organic capitalism will continue.
The Red Market will most definitely open your eyes to the extent and nature of the scams, cons, deals, and outright frauds perpetrated, as well those few who are fighting the good fight against it. They’re in the minority, but it is heartening to know, at least according to the author, that there are actually some honest policemen in this country. Read the book to find out why one particular officer now has to travel everywhere with an escort of two jeeps carrying his armed-to-the-teeth bodyguards. He really stepped on the wrong toes. The network around this industry is huge, and no doubt involves some pretty serious heavy players in the criminal world, domestically and internationally. Not to mention that a lot of the scams and confidence tricks wouldn’t be possible without the complicity of senior police/law-enforcement/government/bureaucratic officials. In organic capitalism, no-ones hands are clean. There is a good deal of legal business as well, though, as well as a considerable amount that falls into that shady grey area where the legal, the moral, and the ethical intersect with their counterparts. Carney does an interesting and elucidative job of detailing this, switching from narrative to illustrative with journalistic, if occasionally disjointed, ease. Still, that’s only to be expected, most of the chapters in this book were written as separate articles originally before being woven together in The Red Market.
The most impressive thing about The Red Market is unquestionably the sheer variety of the economic possibilities in human detritus he explores. While organs and adoption are the major topics, he also covers (mostly in India) illegal embryo trade, the bone and stem-cell market, the human blood black market, (bought for $3 a pint, sold for anything between $20 to $150, see pg. 156) and human hair for the wig market, which is sourced from a temple in India where devotees offer their hair as ritual. ‘Remy Hair’, as it’s known in the trade, is the best quality and a wig made of it can go for as much as $10,000 internationally. There’s also a very interesting chapter on humans being used as Guinea Pigs for drug trials, which, as the author says, could make you very wary of your medicine cabinet.
Other reviews I’ve read point out the brevity of his exploration as perhaps the strongest criticism one can make of this book, and while that’s true, he still manages to cram quite a lot of information into a 250 page book. There’s quite a bit of well-documented research, and an impressive bibliography, which is always a good thing for people looking for more information. Each aspect that he covers could be turned (and has been, in some cases) into a book itself, and perhaps one of the best things about The Red Market is that it might spur others into investigating and hopefully bringing down this illegal trade. I’ve already recommended it to a few people who might have a professional interest in it. But even if moral indignation doesn’t spur you on to quite those heights, reading The Red Market is quite an education nonetheless,
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org