Sabzar Ahmad Khan didn’t think twice before he went up to the local newspaper outlet with a strange request. His village of Nussu Qazigund is located in the northern Indian Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). This is where the raging pandemic, heavy militarisation, violence, political turmoil and a ban on high-speed 4G internet colluded this year.
Last week, Khan, 28, went up to the local daily and requested them to publish an advertisement the editors had never seen before. It was to sell one of his kidneys.
“I, Sabzar Ahmed Khan, son of Ghulam Hassam Khan, resident of Nussu Qazigund, want to inform the people that I have suffered a huge loss in business and have lost everything. As of now, I owe INR 90 lakh (US$ 122,408) to people. If anyone needs a kidney, I am ready to sell mine,” stated the ad, along with his phone number.
Khan—who had a car dealership business before it went bankrupt—said the newspaper editors asked him gazillion questions. “They asked me what I’m up to, and even told me this is illegal in India,” he told VICE World News. “But I begged them and held their feet. I told them I have no other way.”
“I told them if they don’t do this for me, I might have to resort to taking my own life,” he added.
Khan owes INR 61 lakh (US$ 82,704) to the banks and INR 30 lakh (US$ 40,674) to people. The son of a daily wage labourer, Khan’s streak of bad luck started 2019. This was the year when the Indian government took away the special status granted to J&K, which allowed this Muslim-majority state its own flag and constitution. On Aug. 5 last year, India passed a resolution to extend control over the area, removing its autonomy and statehood.
With it, the state went through a series of violence between the armed forces and the civilians, economic distress, massive unemployment and frequent phases of complete communication shutdown. “We see all kinds of danga (Hindi for violence) in our area all the time,” he said. “There are curfews and transport staff keep going on strikes because petrol and diesel is getting so costly. Things are already bad here.”
In October this year, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), a business and economic database and research company, released data on India’s unemployment rate. J&K has the second highest unemployment rate in the country.
“My family knows what I have done,” said Khan. “My wife told me that she will also sell her kidney because my kidney alone cannot fix this debt.”
Khan got married just last year. This year, he spent around three months knocking on local moneylenders’ doors and organisations before he took out the ad. “Nobody took me seriously,” he said. “A lot of people made fun of me. I could only see two options: Either to take out this ad, or end this misery.”
Khan’s story puts a human face to the ongoing economic distress made worse by the pandemic. It is affecting people across generations, especially the youth. The young man’s “do-or-die” sentiment also echoes a grim picture of the lengths people are going to, to survive. In other parts of India, the pandemic led a 22-year-old mother from the southern Indian city of Hyderabad to sell her two-month-old baby for US $600. In another instance, a migrant construction labourer couple sold their two-month-old son for US $293 when they lost their jobs to COVID-19 lockdown.
Financial distress also led to a spike in deaths by suicide across the country. Amid lack of official data, a group of independent researchers launched an informal survey of non-COVID-19 related deaths in India, based on news reports and anecdotal evidence. Starvation and financial distress tops the list.
Last month, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the Indian government’s third employment scheme to push jobs as well as offer credit guarantee support for the distressed sector.
If the preexisting conditions in Kashmir weren’t enough, the government-mandated lockdown amid the ongoing pandemic and restrictions on movements made things worse for Khan. “My ad reflects the current scenario playing out in the country,” said Khan. “Today, it’s me taking out this ad. Tomorrow, it might be someone else. The government should listen to voices like mine.”
Shahid Ahmed, a businessman from the state, told Precious Kashmir, a local daily, that many people in the state had been going bankrupt for a while. But COVID-19 was pretty much the “last nail in the coffin of the business community in Kashmir”. “One man has mustered courage and has made it public that he is ready to sell his kidney to clear his debt,” Ahmed told the local daily. “Many of us are sailing in the same boat but we cannot muster the courage like Sabzar and speak up.”
Khan said he has received about INR 10,000 (US $136) to INR 20,000 (US $272) in his bank account from unknown sources. So far, he has not faced any legal ramifications or investigation for attempting to sell his kidneys. Buying or selling of organs is illegal in India. “The response has been kind from strangers. A lot of people came to me and asked me, ‘Why did you do this?’ I have no other way to put it. I straight up tell them I’m in too much debt,” he added. “ There’s some hope. But let’s see how long that lasts.”
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