In 2004, after Ravi Shivarathri and his brother Mallesh went to Dubai as construction workers, their wives began to receive Rs 5,000 each as a monthly money order. A few months later, the transfers suddenly stopped. Their neighbours told them not to worry. This was common, they said, because companies in Dubai—one of the United Arab Emirates—often delay paying their workers. But there was no word from their husbands. The postman had been their only link to them and they had no idea what to do. One day, an acquaintance showed them a report in a local Telugu daily. It quoted a Gulf newspaper to say that the brothers had been sentenced to 24 years in jail for a murder committed during a robbery on 29 December 2005.
They would subsequently learn about the charges in detail. Within months of arriving in the desert emirate, the company had—as the neighbours guessed— stopped paying Ravi and Mallesh. Struggling for survival, they had reportedly taken to stealing steel cables from a godown in Jebel Ali Free Zone. Apart from them, four Indians and four Pakistanis were also allegedly involved in the racket, all of them construction workers. Dil Prasad Rai, a Nepali watchman at the robbery site, had tried to stop them and was killed in the scuffle.
All ten were caught and convicted in mid-2006. The Pakistanis received 10- year sentences each. Five of the Indians, including the brothers, got 24 years each. The sixth Indian got 10 years. They had not known one another when they landed in Dubai and none had any police record back home.
The Shivarathri family lives in Pedduru, a village 200 km north of Hyderabad in Karimnagar district. Ravi’s wife Rena, 30, lives in a thatched hut with a mud floor, few belongings and three concrete bricks to serve as a firewood stove. Nearby, Mallesh’s wife Rajayya lives in similar poverty. The four other convicted Indians, equally poor, are also from Karimnagar district.
The wives would have had no hope of their husbands’ release had an NGO called Migrants Rights Council (MRC) not intervened in September 2008. A few of its members, led by its president P Narayana Swami, met the six men in Sharjah Central Prison on 8 December 2011. Under Shariah law as applicable in Dubai, if the victim’s family agrees to accept ‘diya’ or blood money in lieu of the life taken, the perpetrator/s may be pardoned. Through Rai’s brother, Til Bahadur, who was working in Dubai, the MRC got in touch with the victim’s wife Dil Kumari and made an offer of Rs 15 lakh in Indian currency as blood money. She accepted it. On a visit back home to Nepal, Til Bahadur got an affidavit of acceptance signed by Kumari on 17 January 2012, with a local trade union leader as witness. He also got photographs of it.
There was only one problem: the families were too poor to raise that sum. After scouting for cash in vain, the women have put their kidneys on sale. Asked how she could do such a thing, Rena’s answer is simple: “Without a man in the house, it’s difficult to make a living. I have children to look after.”
When they were first told about the blood money, the wives knocked on every door possible. They filed a writ petition at the Andhra Pradesh High Court and also approached the state government for help. Nothing came their way. Despairing, they heard of financial offers for kidneys and got in touch with brokers with links to some Hyderabad hospitals. The women claim that they got themselves tested, and that four of them— they do not say who—even had their kidneys medically matched for transplants to waiting patients.
Indian law bars an individual from offering a kidney to an unrelated person. Legally, a kidney cannot be sold in India. MRC members say that when they heard about the proposed hawking of kidneys, they advised the women not to flout the law. Instead, they helped them make an application to the State Human Rights Commission seeking permission for it. The Commission has issued notices to the AP chief secretary and Protector of Emigrants under the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs. They have to submit their replies by 17 January 2013.
The case has struck a chord of sympathy across Andhra Pradesh. “These are poor women from backward class families working as daily wage workers in either stone quarries or cotton fields,” says the MRC’s Mandha Bheem Reddy.
We travel 25 km on a metalled single lane to reach Konaraopeta, a village in Konaraopeta mandal. A kilometre past the village bus stand, a sharp left—a tractor track—winds its way up a hillock. We trek up and ask Dandugula Narasiah why he decided to build his small house up here. “There is a severe water problem here,” he says, “Up this hillock, water is easier to get.” The 61-year-old has broken his left leg twice and it is not easy for him to trudge up and down. His son, Dandugula Lakshman, is in the UAE jail. Lakshman’s wife, Padma, is away— working at a construction site 12 km off. “If she does not go,” he says, “she will have to forgo Rs 100 in wages.”
Lakshman had been to Dubai twice earlier. He first went in 2003 after the family took a Rs 3 lakh loan to get his sisters married. “The third time, he told us, would be his last trip to Dubai,” says the father. One of Lakshman’s sisters, Lakshmi, gestures to their two-room dwelling. “We didn’t know what work he did there,” she says, “But he did help with some money to rebuild this house.”
After reading about Padma’s offer to sell her kidney, someone sent money to the district’s rural development officer. Narasiah says that when the officer visited them a few days earlier, she found that Lakshman’s name was ‘Lachaiah’ on the family’s ration card. In his passport, it was ‘Lakshman’. “The officer did not tell us who sent the money or how much,” says the elderly man, “She wants to be sure it is the same person in [that UAE] jail before handing over the cheque. I am in no position to chase her now.”
Itkyala Narasaiah of the MRC later tells us that to compound the family’s woes, Lakshman lost three of his fingers while working on a machine in jail a few days ago. “We have not yet told the old man,” he says, “We will only inform the wife.”
Sattaiah Pallam, a farmer from the neighbouring Venkatraypet village, had met Lakshman in Dubai in 2005. “He was very happy and said this would be his last working year in UAE. A few weeks after I returned, this incident happened,” he says, “He is a decent guy and had no previous police record. He must have been framed or set up because he did not know the local language and received no legal help. Apparently, the Indian embassy has not been of help either.”
Leaving the Dandugula family, we travel on a rutted short cut with the SUV’s underside scraping the surface. We emerge onto a tarred road and park in front of Chandurthi primary school. Opposite is a modest square house with an asbestos roof. In the small open courtyard, a manual stone crusher made of granite rests on its side. It was on this that Nampelli Venkati once worked. After 2002, his customers began opting for motorised crushers. “As business turned bad, our debts went up. My husband decided to take up employment in Dubai,” says his wife Yellava Venkati. His ending up in jail was a shock.
On Yellava’s lap are bundles of bidis— more honourable work than construction labour, which she does occasionally to support her children. She gets Rs 100 for rolling 1,000 bidis a day. “No one can do more than 1,000, it’s back-breaking work. She has worked very hard to survive under such daunting circumstances,” says Jyothi, a school teacher who has come across to speak to us.
Yellava’s the oldest among the women who have offered their kidneys. “Troubles come in battalions,” she says, citing a local Telugu saying. Her younger son, a high school student, lies on a cot inside the house, having fallen and broken his chest bone at school about a week ago. Doctors have prescribed him three months of bed rest, and since Yellava needs to attend to him, she cannot go out looking for work. She has an elder son, but he has gone limp in the arms and legs on account of a protein deficiency. The family is barely able to scrape enough to feed themselves, let alone raise money for their chief earner’s release. “The local MLA initially promised to pay Rs 1 lakh towards the [pool of] blood money, but has not done anything so far,” she says, “We have visited big leaders and approached the courts, but to no avail.”
She points to her cellphone and says her husband rings her once every two months. She updates him on their efforts to get him out. “He is obviously not very happy that we have offered our kidneys. But how else do we raise Rs 15 lakh?”
About 30 km away is Gangadhara, a village on the state highway. Behind the local mosque lives Reshma Bi, along with her in-laws. Her husband, Syed Karim, is the only Indian who got a 10- year sentence. But he has told her on the phone he is not sure if he will be able to return even after serving that term. “There is some ambiguity about his sentence,” says Karim’s uncle, Syed Haider.
Reshma works as a daily wager and is thankful that her aged in-laws have allowed her to stay with them. They moved into this new house that belongs to a relative after their old one partly collapsed under heavy rains last year. The family has spent the past four years asking people for help. Haider says that when the Prime Minister was in Hyderabad a few months ago, the families tried meeting him. “Security personnel turned us away without even listening to us.”
Reshma looks so frail that her relatives fear she will not survive a kidney donation. She says the offer is not a gimmick. “It’s a last resort,” she says. “We have to do it. Hum aadhi zindagi jee rahein hain.” It is half a life she leads anyway.