Surrogacy now a troubling issue in India
"I tend to write novels which are topical but which also are related to a deeper social problem. While I have put all the `masala` of a good novel into `Origins of Love`, the underlying narrative deals with the exploitation of women and their bodies in a rapidly growing industry," she says about her book which tells about surrogacy and IVF and how topical the issue is both in India and abroad.
"Surrogacy is rapidly growing in India and in the absence of a proper law, women are being used not just by the doctors but also by their own families to have children for other couples for a few lakhs of rupees," Desai told PTI.
She says these are often "desperately poor women: it seems like another form of colonialisation, or even human trafficking – but it is dressed up as something else – something more noble".
She dealt with female foeticide and infanticide in India in her award-winning Witness the Night, the first of the Simran Singh trilogy. In "Origins of Love", Simran is asked to investigate the case of a newly born child, Amelia, whose British parents have died in a tragic but mysterious accident in Rajasthan. Amelia`s "birth" mother is a surrogate who has also disappeared and Simran decides to find out why no one seems to want the orphan.
According to Desai, female foeticide and surrogacy are all troubling issues and India is increasingly becoming a very insecure place for women. "Domestic violence, rape, honour killings, sex selection – all sorts of crimes against women are increasing. And the compliance of `civil` society in all these areas as well as the lack of justice where crimes against women are concerned is very troubling."
"Our young women deserve a better, more gender-equal India – and through my novels – with their unusual and strong women protagonists as well as men who support their cause I do hope I can also make some kind of change," she hopes. She rues that when money is involved (especially in a poor country) everything becomes a huge racket.
"Thus surrogates are going in for multiple pregnancies – encouraged by hospitals and their own families – and the doctors are raking in the money as well. Though the ART bill has yet to be passed, clinics have mushroomed (many with doubtful credentials) all over the country."
Desai, whose "Witness the Night" won the Costa First Novel Award 2010, fears the situation will only get worse and this will become a form of human trafficking as fertility levels all over the world, including India.
"We have a hopeless situation where medical practices in this country are not monitored properly -and this being a global industry with mega bucks – it is hardly likely anyone will upset the gravy train."
Desai suggests that to ensure the safety of the woman who lends out her womb, there has to be complete transparency and the contracts and legal documents drawn up have to favour the surrogate as well – not just the commissioning parents and the medical fraternity as they do at present.
"There also has to be international pressure to make the whole process more transparent. Researchers working in the area at present complain of a lack of transparency: right from the selection of the surrogate to the number of embryos being implanted to the actual money paid to the hospital.
Even the identity and background of the commissioning parents -especially if they are from abroad -is not properly cross checked. There must be a proper life insurance policy taken out for the women -and perhaps the amount of money paid to her needs to be increased so that the practice is not misused.
She also fears that poor Indian women stand at the risk of being exploited by foreigners or lured by money to lend their wombs. "This highly debatable medical practice has been permitted without proper scrutiny and we at present have no means even to monitor it. The number of babies born through surrogacy could be anything up to 25000 per year and many of them would be for international couples. Isn`t it about time we did something about it," she asks.