Into the Heart of India's Underground Bone Trade Many bones used for medical purposes in the United States and Europe were originally stolen from graves in Calcutta, India. Despite changes in laws, the bone trade is going strong.

Into the Heart of India's Underground Bone Trade

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

Human skeletons can be found in places like med schools or museums. They originally come from far away: Calcutta, India.

Investigative journalist Scott Carney reports that many of those skeletons are stolen.

SCOTT CARNEY: For 200 years, Calcutta has been at the center of the global trade in human bones. In colonial times, British doctors hired thieves to snatch skeletons from Indian cemeteries. And today isn't much different.

Grave-robbing is more common than anyone would expect.

Mohammad Jinnah Vishwas is a farmer from the village of Amdanga near Calcutta. He says that robbers have visited his village for generations and now almost all the graves are empty. He's terrified of what will happen to his corpse when he dies.

Mr. MOHAMMAD JINNAH VISHWAS: (Through Translator) When I die, when I'm gone, my body will also be stolen. Before, we didn't understand where all the bones were going. Now we know that they were taken by criminals.

CARNEY: Exporting human bones was legal until 1986, when the government banned the business. Reports surfaced that bone traders weren't satisfied with what they were finding in graveyards and were murdering people for their skeletons. But the change in law didn't put all of the 13 original bone exporters out of business. At least one went underground.

That firm is called the Young Brothers. Its offices are located in downtown Calcutta between the city's biggest morgue and its largest cemetery. They represent themselves as a medical supply company and are not shy about advertising their selection of human bones. A former Young Brother's clerk says that they're willing to do anything to maintain a steady supply of bones. She requested anonymity. Although she left the company six years ago, she fears retaliation from her former boss if he finds out that she spoke to the media.

Unidentified Woman #1: They took the body from (unintelligible) river.

CARNEY: She says that Young Brothers took bodies from the river, the graveyard, and even from hospital morgues.

Unidentified Woman #1: More than 5,000 dead bodies I've seen.

CARNEY: She says that she saw over 5,000 dead bodies. She left Young Brothers when Calcutta's health department chief, Javed Ahmed Khan, received complaints from neighbors about the company. They complained of an unbearable stench throughout the neighborhood. Khan ordered a raid of the facility in 2001. He describes what he saw this way.

Mr. JAVED AHMED KHAN (Health Department Chief, Calcutta): Unbearable stench is coming out from the room; they saw human skeletons being boiled in big...

CARNEY: He says that he saw skeletons being boiled in cauldrons and dipped in caustic solutions to remove the fat and tissue.

Mr. KHAN: Two rooms full is kept of human skeletons.

CARNEY: In addition to three truckloads of bones, he says he found invoices for shipments headed to the United States, Europe, South America, and even Singapore. But despite these findings, the owner of Young Brothers was released just a few days later.

Outside Young Brothers' head office, I spot the owner, Vinesh Aron, as he pulls up in a white van to unload a shipment of supplies. He's notoriously press shy, but on this day he tolerates a couple of questions about the 2001 raid.

Mr. VINESH ARON (Owner, Young Brothers): We won the case.

CARNEY: He won that case, he says. And what about the skeletons found in his house?

Mr. ARON: That was all export materials.

CARNEY: Then he slips into the building and slams the door shut. In a later conversation that Aron did not want recorded, he says that he no longer deals in human bones.

In the parking lot of a rustic police outpost about 100 kilometers outside of Calcutta sits a dilapidated SUV. The car's engine doesn't work anymore, but the locks do. So police use it as an evidence locker for priority cases.

A constable in a sweat-stained undershirt jerks open the back door, hoists a gray sack, and dumps it on the ground. Human skulls tumble out as the bag springs open. And my feet are the bleached white remains of more than a hundred people.

(Soundbite of skulls)

CARNEY: The police intercepted this cache as it was making its way along a well-established route for smuggled human remains in May of this year. If those 100 skeletons had made it to the U.S., they could have fetched as much as $70,000 but police have been reluctant to prosecute cases like this one.

Mr. RAJEEV KUMAR(ph) (Inspector General): It depends upon the seriousness society places on it.

CARNEY: That's Rajeev Kumar, the director inspector general of police in Calcutta.

Mr. KUMAN: We are asking our lawyers what law we should charge the men, but they do not know exactly. Most seriously we should view this activity as.

CARNEY: Although exporting bones from India is illegal, he says that he doesn't have the resources to enforce the law. And since there are no laws that criminalize bone imports to the United States or Europe, the black market business is actually sort of legal.

Craig Kilgore, president of Kilgore International, used to trade in real human bones but stopped when India imposed the 1986 ban. Kilgore says that there is still a strong demand for skeletons.

Mr. CRAIG KILGORE (President, Kilgore International): The detail in the human bone material is so far greater than it is in the plastic. Any of the instructors at anatomy labs will tell you that there's never any - any replacing the real thing.

CARNEY: One supplier in North America, Osta International in British Columbia, still sells human bones from India.

Christian Ruediger, who helps run the company with his father, says that more than half of his buyers are in the United States. He declined to be interviewed for this radio program, but he told me about his business. He doesn't buy directly from India. Rather, the bones filter through a long string of middlemen in Paris and Singapore. When they finally go on sale, an Indian skeleton could fetch more than $3,000.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Carney.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: You can see photos of the skeletons at our Web site npr.org. Scott Carney also writes about the bones of Calcutta in this month's Wired magazine.

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