It's January 26, a national holiday in India. The day is exactly 25 months after the Asian tsunami disaster.

There are horns, sirens and other sounds of great fanfare which can be heard in the Eranavur suburb in Chennai, temporarily home to fishermen and their families who were ravaged by the 2004 tsunami. (Chennai is the capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.)

The makeshift arrangements house 1,740 families and each household has been allotted a room that serves as a living room, bedroom and kitchen — regardless of the number of family members. They share common toilets and bathing areas.

This is how they have been living ever since the tsunami uprooted their lives. They will continue to do so until the state government shifts them to permanent housing — sometime in the future.

Homes, they say, that won't be in Tsunami Nagar, which is how its citizens refer to their present quarters. Homes that will be closer to the shoreline and they hope will earn them a better livelihood.

Now many fishermen's wives in Tsunami Nagar are selling their kidneys out of desperation to bring home the money that their husbands are unable to earn.

Maria Selvam, president of the local fishermen's association, brought the situation to the attention of a People's Tribunal headed by UN Special Representatives.

"I spoke out on January 12. And on January 17 the people here [Tsunami Nagar] beat me up. They weren't happy that I went public with the story. They think it has brought dishonour on us. So now I'm looked upon as a traitor," he says.

Fishing trawlers off access

Selvam decided to speak out when he learnt that more than 80 women had sold their kidneys.

Though he blames it on the inadequacy of the Indian government's rehabilitation efforts to an extent, he says it is primarily a problem created by the menfolk who are refusing to work.

It doesn't help that Tsunami Nagar is eight kilometres from the shore. There is a beach nearby but it isn't possible to dock the large fishing boats and trawlers the fishermen have traditionally used to go fishing on the high seas.

Selvam, who doesn't fish anymore — out of fear — previously went to sea on a motorboat aboard which he remained for a week. "We can catch more that way so we prefer that method of fishing," he says.

Although smaller boats can berth at the shallow beach, Selvam says that a number of his comrades find it difficult to overcome their justifiable apprehensions and anxieties to go fishing on the small vessels.

To join a group of fishermen on a large trawler or motorboat, they have to commute to the docking area about ten kilometres away. Transport costs them Rs40 (approximately Dh3) per trip but the returns do not justify their going to such great hardship.

What of other jobs then, I ask. Selvam, for instance, now has a firewood stall in Tsunami Nagar, although his recent declarations to the media could force him to look at other opportunities.

"There is construction. And there is a factory across the road. But there is not enough money in it. And whatever little they make is spent on alcohol," he says.

Rampant alcoholism

A group of women in Tsunami Nagar point to Thilakavathy, a 36-year-old woman, who sold a kidney.

"Her husband gets drunk and beats her up at night," they say.

Thilakavathy admits that her husband doesn't fish anymore. Nor does he have any other job. She has three daughters. In other words, she would have to raise three dowries to marry them off.

The family survives on the money she makes as a construction worker. Her eldest daughter, who is 19, works as a maid.

Although she wasn't in immediate need of any substantial capital, she says, she decided to sell her kidney as the family didn't have enough to eat.

Since her operation four months ago, Thilakavathy has been unable to work and is now in greater financial trouble as she is yet to receive the payment for her kidney.

Unlike the guarded Thilakavathy, who refused to allow any photographs of her, 36-year-old Rani volunteers more information.

Rani's husband no longer goes fishing either but she hastens to brush off — and vehemently — any suggestions of a drinking problem he may have.

Driven to desperation

Since they moved to Tsunami Nagar, Rani has made some money from a tea-stall she has set up in front of their makeshift quarters.

"I have a 22-year-old daughter and for her wedding I needed to come up with some money. I knew we could get big amounts by selling the kidney," she says.

She went alone to Chennai's Devaki Hospital, where she met a tout at a tea-shop outside the hospital.

"He said I would be paid Rs150,000 (Dh12,480) — Rs40,000 (Dh3,330) soon after the operation and then a monthly payment of Rs3,000 (Dh249.54) towards the balance," she says.

Like all the other women of her background selling their kidneys, Rani too was told little about the procedure or about post-surgical care. Least of all the potential risks involved. Instead, she was merely asked to sign a consent form.

After the surgery Rani stayed in the general ward of the hospital for a week. She got her first payment of Rs40,000 (Dh3,330) and she returned to Tsunami Nagar believing that the remaining payments would be duly sent to her every month.

A few months after there were no signs of the remainder, Rani tried the broker's contact number. Needless to say, there was no response. When she tried to visit the address, she learnt it was non-existent. And when she went back to Devaki Hospital, there was no sign of the man.

Rani starts sobbing at this point.

"I haven't been able to work since that surgery. I can't lift anything. I can barely stand up for half an hour a day. I don't know what they've taken from me. My husband helps me around the house and looks after me."

Endemic phenomenon

Though there is a picture of former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa — credited with spearheading Tamil Nadu's tsunami rehabilitation efforts — on her door, Rani doesn't think that the change in government has made a difference.

"We stopped receiving aid under Jayalalithaa's rule. We still haven't got our new house. We can't sell fish anymore. The tsunami didn't take our lives, but it took our livelihoods," she says.

The Indian media has reported extensively on the story of tsunami victims resorting to selling kidneys. And while there is a story, Jaya Menon, a reporter with The Indian Express, says the tsunami isn't the locus of the kidney scam.

Menon, who broke the story, says it's a problem that's endemic to poverty.

"Chennai is not new to this. It has been going on for 20 years. In fact, when I was with The Statesman, we uncovered the same phenomenon in the slums. There's a place called Vilivakkam that is so notorious for it that many people know it as Kidneyvakkam," she says.

This poverty-related phenomenon is one that many observers say will continue to exist as long as there is a demand.

"The government shouldn't ban the sale of organs but regulate it," Menon says.

Organ sale is a complicated issue despite the presence of a Transplant Ethics Committee which comprises a panel of medical experts who are supposed to screen every donor to ensure that the donor is a compassionate donor and not someone doing it for commercial gain.

A well-known surgeon at a famous Chennai hospital, who has performed organ donation surgeries, admitted under condition of anonymity that he could not confidently guarantee that this mandatory screening has been taking place.

"I wish I could say yes, 100 per cent. All donors are thoroughly checked and the process is straightforward. But I cannot say that," he says.

Systemic flaws

According to the 1994 legislation, the state-appointed committee must approve every transplant. The committee is expected to interview all potential donors before approving them.

The Chennai surgeon estimates that the committee interviews about 20-25 donors a week and approves 85 per cent of the applicants.

However, he says brokers produce false papers so that the transaction subsequently takes place on legal grounds.

Though members of the Transplant Ethics Committee have publicly admitted to flaws in the system, they deny that they are bribed and blame the forgery on the brokers.

The surgeon is far from convinced. "Ask the women in Tsunami Nagar how they were interviewed by the Ethics Committee," he says.

Sure enough, Rani recalls an extremely brief encounter with the committee.

"I was part of a group of women who were all arranged by the agent. One by one the committee called us forward. They asked me if I was willing to donate my kidney. I said yes and then they asked me to sign a paper. That's all," she says.

However, ever since the story of the mass kidney sale hit the headlines, the state government has been on alert.

Various departments have opened investigations and have promised action. However, at the time of writing, few officials were willing to respond to any questions.

Meanwhile, Maria Selvam returns from a visit to the new permanent housing project site. He assures me that it exists. When they'll move, he doesn't know.

"I don't know anything. I don't know if the men will resume fishing. Maybe some will. But anyone with children won't go back to sea," he says.