Category: Wired

The Bone Factory

Originally published in Wired

A constable in a sweat-stained undershirt and checkered blue sarong lays a ragged cloth over a patch of mud. He jerks open the back door of a decrepit Indian-made Tata Sumo SUV — what passes for an evidence locker at this rustic police outpost in the Indian state of West Bengal. A hundred human skulls tumble out onto the cloth, making a hollow clatter as they fall to the ground. They’ve lost most of their teeth bouncing around the back of the truck. Bits of bone and enamel scatter like snowflakes around the growing pile.

Standing next to the truck, the ranking officer smiles and lets out a satisfied grunt. “Now you can see how big the bone business is here,” he says. I crouch down and pick up a skull. It’s lighter than I expected. I hold it up to my nose. It smells like fried chicken.

Before the authorities intercepted it, this cache was moving along a well-established pipeline for human skeletal remains. For 150 years, India’s bone trade has followed a route from remote Indian villages to the world’s most distinguished medical schools.

Skeletons aren’t easy to get. In the US, for instance, most corpses receive a prompt burial, and bodies donated to science usually end up on the dissection table, their bones sawed to pieces and destined for cremation. So most skeletons used for medical study come from overseas. Often they arrive without the informed consent of their former owners and in violation of the laws of their country of origin.

U.S. institutions pay a hefty price for human bones.

India has long been the world’s primary source of bones used in medical study, renowned for producing specimens scrubbed to a pristine white patina and fitted with high-quality connecting hardware. In 1985, however, the Indian government outlawed the export of human remains, and the global supply of skeletons collapsed. Western countries turned to China and Eastern Europe, but those regions produce relatively few skeletons. They have little experience producing display-quality specimens, and their products are regarded as inferior.

Now, 22 years after India’s export ban, there are signs that the trade never ended. Black-market vendors in West Bengal continue to supply human skeletons and skulls using the time-honored method: Rob graves, separate soft flesh from unyielding calcium, and deliver the bones to distributors — who assemble them and ship them to dealers around the globe.

Exports to North America are still small compared with pre-ban levels, but shipments are finding their way to American medical programs. Suppliers have ample incentive — it’s a lucrative business. The skulls on the ground before me, for instance, would fetch an estimated $70,000 overseas.

The constable grabs the cloth by its corners and gathers the evidence into a bundle. “You know, I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “I hope I don’t again.”

A massive low-pressure system over the Bay of Bengal is threatening to flood the state of West Bengal. Newspapers have already dubbed the storm a “watery apocalypse” after eight people drowned in floods before it even touched land. I’m driving to the tiny village of Purbasthali — about 80 miles outside of Kolkata, the state capital — the site of the processing plant where the police discovered their load of skulls. My rented Toyota Qualis gets stuck in the mud half a mile from the facility, so I jump out to make my way on foot. The sky is pitch-black, the rain suffocating. Toads the size of boxing gloves hop across the muddy track.

When police arrived to investigate last spring, they could smell the stench of rotting flesh from nearly a mile away. Sections of spine strung together with twine dangled from the rafters, an officer told me. Hundreds of bones were scattered on the floor in some sort of ordering system.

This bone factory had been operating for more than 100 years when two of its workers, drinking at a bar, bragged that they were hired to dig bodies out of graves. Shocked villagers dragged them to a police station, where they confessed. The workers said a man named Mukti Biswas ran the factory. The authorities knew him well. In 2006, police had arrested Biswas as the kingpin of a grave-robbing ring; he was released a day later, news reports said, “because of his political links.” The police took him into custody once again, but he was let out on bail and has since taken flight.

After 10 minutes of slogging through the mud, I make out the flicker of a gas lamp. I peek into the doorway of a wood-frame house. A family of four sitting on the dirt floor stares back at me.

“Do you know Mukti Biswas?” I ask.

“The bastard still owes me money,” replies Manoj Pal, a twentysomething man with a thin mustache. His family has been working at the bone factory for generations, he says. He offers to show me around, and we head out along the bank of the Bhagirathi River.

The processing plant is little more than a bamboo hut with a tarpaulin roof — one of a dozen bone factories Pal says he knows about. In April, the authorities confiscated piles of bones, buckets of hydrochloric acid, and two barrels full of a caustic chemical they have yet to identify. All that’s left is a dirt floor with a large concrete vat sunk into the ground.

A third-generation bone trader, Biswas had no problem finding dead bodies. As caretaker of the village’s cremation ground, he claimed to have a license to dispose of the dead. But police told reporters he was robbing graves. Biswas pilfered corpses from cemeteries, morgues, and funeral pyres; he would drag the deceased from the flames as soon as the families left. He employed almost a dozen people to shepherd the bones through the various stages of de-fleshing and curing. For this work, Pal says he earned $1.25 a day. He also received a bonus for keeping the bones from a given body together so they represented a biological individual rather than a mishmash of parts — a feature prized by doctors.

Pal explains the factory’s production process. First the corpses were wrapped in netting and anchored in the river, where bacteria and fish reduced a body to a loose pile of bones and mush in a week or so. The crew then scrubbed the bones and boiled them in a cauldron of water and caustic soda to dissolve any remaining flesh. That left the calcium surfaces with a yellow tint. To bring them up to medical white, bones were then left in sunlight for a week before being soaked in hydrochloric acid.

Biswas sold complete skeletons wholesale for $45 to a medical supply company called Young Brothers, which wired the pieces together, painted on medical diagrams, and sawed away sections of the skulls to reveal internal structures. Then Young Brothers sold the bones to dealers around the world.

Shining my flashlight on the floor, I pick up a wet rag. The translator lets out a low hiss. “I hope you know that’s a death shroud,” he says. I drop the cloth and wipe my hand on my shirt.


Top: A police officer in Burdwan, West Bengal, displays a cache of skulls confiscated from a bone factory run by Mukti Biswas on the outskirts of Kolkata. Middle: The gated entrance to Young Brothers in Kolkata. The company sells human remains at wholesale prices. Bottom: A bag of tibias and femurs* recovered by West Bengal police.
Photos: Scott Carney

The empirical study of human anatomy took off with Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches in the 15th century; the earliest extant articulated skeleton dates from 1543. As medicine advanced, physicians were expected to have a systematic understanding of the human body’s inner workings. By the beginning of the 19th century, Europe’s demand for human remains far outstripped supply.

In England, home of many of the world’s preeminent medical institutions, grave robbing became so commonplace that certain cemeteries were famous for battles between grieving families and marauding medical students. To contain the problem, the government passed the Anatomy Act of 1832, allowing doctors to take any corpse that was left unclaimed in a city morgue or hospital. The law put an end to grave robbery, but the supply of legal skeletons still couldn’t keep up with demand. So British doctors looked to the colonies. In India, members of the dom caste, who traditionally performed cremations, were pressed into service processing bones. In the 1850s, Calcutta Medical College processed 900 skeletons a year, mostly for shipment abroad. A century later, a newly independent India dominated the world market for human bones.

In 1985, the Chicago Tribune reported that India had exported about 60,000 skulls and skeletons the year before. The supply was sufficient for every medical student in the developed world to buy a bone box along with their textbooks. Price: $300.

If most of the merchandise was stolen, at least exporting it was legal. “For years, we ran everything aboveboard,” Bimalendu Bhattacharjee, a former president of the Indian Association of Exporters of Anatomical Specimens, told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “No one advertised, but everyone knew it was going on.” At their height, Kolkata’s bone factories took in an estimated $1 million a year.

But it couldn’t last. The graveyards of West Bengal were being picked clean, and the lure of ready money soon attracted criminal elements. The industry shuddered to a halt in March 1985, when a bone trader was arrested after exporting 1,500 child skeletons. Because they’re relatively rare and illustrate transitional stages in osteological development, child skeletons command higher prices. Indian newspapers claimed that children were being kidnapped and killed for their bones.

Panic spread with news of the arrest. In the months after the indictment, vigilantes combed the cities searching for members of the alleged kidnappers’ network. In September, an Australian tourist was killed and a Japanese tourist was beaten by a mob after rumors spread that they were involved in the conspiracy. The attacks might have been enough to stall India’s bone industry, but the government had already taken action: A few weeks earlier, India’s Supreme Court interpreted the national Import/Export Control Act to prohibit the export of human tissue.

In the absence of competing suppliers in other countries, the court’s decision effectively shut down international trade in human skeletons. Medical schools in the US and Europe begged the Indian government to reverse the export ban, to no avail.

Since then, natural human bone has been difficult to come by. The voracious demand for fresh cadavers in medical education consumes nearly all donated corpses in the US, and in any case, processing skeletons is a slow, messy business that few people care to take on. When high-quality specimens do become available, they tend to be costly. A complete skeleton in good condition now retails for several thousand dollars, and orders can take months, even years, to fulfill. Students no longer buy their own bone boxes; instead, schools usually keep an inventory that’s replaced only when specimens are damaged or stolen. Stanford Medical School allocates half a skeleton, cleaved down the middle, for every two students. Such policies mean that many established institutions already have all the bones they need. The biggest buyers of skeletons are new and growing schools throughout the world that need to outfit their labs.

Some institutions have turned to plastic replicas. But artificial substitutes aren’t ideal. “Plastic models are reproductions of a single specimen and don’t include the range of variations found in real osteology,” says Samuel Kennedy, who stocks the anatomy program at Harvard Medical School. Students trained on facsimiles never see these differences among individuals. Moreover, the models aren’t entirely accurate. “The molding process doesn’t capture the detail of a real specimen,” Kennedy adds.”This is especially critical in the skull.”

In the US, major dealers like Kilgore International are making do selling replicas. “My father would have done almost anything to get back into the bone business,” says Craig Kilgore, who runs the company his father founded. “He was legally blind but would still come to the office and write letters to anyone, anywhere in the world, that he felt could be of help to reopen the supply.”

His father, who died in 1995, didn’t live to see the turnaround.

Tucked away on a side street between one of Kolkata’s largest graveyards and one of its busiest hospitals, Young Brothers’ headquarters looks more like an abandoned warehouse than a leading distributor of human skeletons. The rusted front gate appears to have been padlocked and forgotten a decade ago. Above the entrance, the company sign is a tableau of peeling paint.

It wasn’t always this way. The building was bustling with activity in 2001, according to former Kolkata Health Department chief Javed Ahmed Khan. At the time, neighbors complained that the Young Brothers offices stank of death. Huge piles of bones lay drying on the roof. When the police refused to file a case, Khan raided the building with a posse of bamboo-wielding heavies.

“There were two rooms full of human skeletons,” Khan recalls. It took five trucks to haul them away. He also seized thousands of documents, including invoices to companies all around the world. “They were sending shipments to Thailand, Brazil, Europe, and the United States,” he says.

Sixteen years after the export ban, it was as if the law had never taken effect. “We used to fill orders all over the world,” says a clerk employed by Young Brothers between 1999 and 2001, who requested anonymity. “We used to buy bones from Mukti Biswas. I saw more than 5,000 dead bodies.” There were other suppliers, too, and factories up and down the length of West Bengal. The company took in roughly $15,000 a month.

Khan’s raid prompted the police to arrest Young Brothers’ owner, Vinesh Aron. He spent two nights in jail before being released.

Today, there are no bones on the roof. I’ve been poking around the area for an hour or so, interviewing neighbors, when a white van pulls up to the building. A man dressed in a pink-checkered shirt steps out. He walks briskly to a side door and knocks: Vinesh Aron.

Aron sees me snapping photos and knocks more forcefully, but the assistant inside is having trouble with the lock. As I try to formulate a question, my translator shoves a microphone in his face and asks whether he’s still shipping skeletons to the West. Looking flustered, Aron blurts, “We won that case!” The entrance cracks open and he slips in before the door slams in my face.

In a subsequent phone conversation, Aron says he now sells medical models and charts, but no bones. However, a vendor of surgical instrument supplies who claims to be his brother-in-law says Young Brothers is the only bone distributor in the country. “My brother-in-law is the only man who still does this in India. He is the only one with guts,” he says. Then he offers to dig up a skeleton for me for 1,000 rupees ($25).

The most recent Young Brothers catalog (2006-2007) takes care to inform customers that it abides by the law. It lists a wide assortment of bones at wholesale prices, noting that they’re “for sale in India only.” Indian skeletons are somehow making it out of the country anyway.

In Canada, Osta International sells human bones throughout the US and Europe. The 40-year-old company offers to fill orders immediately. “About half of our business is in the States,” says Christian Ruediger, who runs the business with his father, Hans.

Ruediger admits that Osta stocks bones from India, presumably smuggled out of the country in violation of the export law. Until a few years ago, he got them from a distributor in Paris, but that source dried up in 2001 — around the time Javed Khan raided Young Brothers. Since then, he has bought his stock from a middleman in Singapore. He declines to provide the name. “We want to keep a low profile,” he says.

Of some 30 institutions I contacted in the course of researching this article, the handful that admitted to buying bones in the past few years declined to reveal their sources or speak on record. Osta’s name came up twice. “I bought a complete skeleton and a dissected human demonstration skull from Osta,” a professor at a prestigious Virginia college says. “Both were excellent.”

Another Osta customer is a firm called Dentsply Rinn, which offers a plastic model head containing a real skull, used in training dentists. “It’s very difficult to procure human bones,” marketing manager Kimberly Brown says. “Our requirements stipulate that the skulls must be of a certain size and grade and without certain anatomical defects. But we have no requirement for their origin.”

Indian authorities express a similar lack of concern. Although the international bone trade violates the national export law and local statutes against grave desecration, officials look the other way.”This is not a new thing,” says Rajeev Kumar, West Bengal’s deputy inspector general of police. “There’s no evidence that they were killing people.” The police took an interest in Biswas only because the bodies of a few important people went missing. “We are trying to implement the law based on the stress society places on it,” he adds. “Society does not see this as a very serious thing.”

The need to study human bones in medicine is well established. The need to obtain the informed consent of people whose bones are studied is not. The reemergence of India’s bone trade reflects the tension between these requirements. Someday doctors may develop a supply chain based on voluntary donation. Meanwhile, the bone factories of Kolkata are open for business.

Scott Carney (www.scottcarneyonline.comwrote about auto-rickshaw racing in issue 15.01.

* Correction appended March 18, 2008, 6:00pm. This bag in this photograph contains tibias and femurs, not just femurs, as previously reported.


The Tata Nano

It’s Tuesday morning and the streets of Bangalore are, as always, jammed with traffic and saturated with smog. A young tech worker and his pregnant wife navigate the dusty roads on a tiny scooter, a 125-cc Hero Honda. Srinivasan Chandra’s hands sweat onto the handlebars as he waits for the light to turn green. The journey from home to office is only 6 miles, but road conditions and rush hour have turned the four-lane highway into a cross between a parking lot and a demolition derby. Still in her first trimester, his wife sits sidesaddle on the vinyl seat and adjusts her sari so it won’t get caught in the wheel. Srinivasan eyes the Yamaha alongside him and calculates his next move. If he guns the throttle just before the light turns green, he might get a jump on the other guy and swerve around a nasty-looking pothole ahead to make the next light. But if he’s too slow off the mark, or if the Yamaha doesn’t give ground, he might bottom out on the pothole. “One mistake and we lose our baby to the road,” he says.

Click here to read the full article at Wired



The Godfather of Bangalore

Originally published in Wired.

It’s a little past midnight, and a lonely parcel of farmland not far from the new international airport in Bangalore, India, is soaking up a gentle rain. At the center of the lot is a house surrounded by a low stone wall. There’s a hole in the roof and a bushel of ginger drying under an awning. Large block letters painted on the wall read: THIS PROPERTY BELONGS TO CHHABRIA JANWANI. Inside, eight men—two armed with shotguns—confer in hushed voices as they peer out the windows. Is it safe for them to go to sleep, or should they stand watch another few hours? A guard wearing a dirty work shirt is the first to notice signs of trouble. In the distance, flashlight beams sweep the roadway. The lights advance, accompanied by a chorus of voices. Then the sound of people scrambling over the wall. One of the guards makes a break for the gate, sprinting toward a police station a mile away. Before the others can do much more than scramble to their feet, 20 attackers brandishing swords and knives emerge from the shadows. Some carry buckets of blue paint. It takes them only a minute to overrun the building. Three guards who stood their ground lie bleeding on the floor. The others surrender.

Firmly in control, the marauders shift gears. They pull out rollers and slather paint over Chhabria Janwani’s claim to the land. By the time a police jeep pulls up, the sign is only a memory. The attackers have achieved their goal. Thanks to the convoluted rules surrounding land ownership, the removal of Janwani’s lettering throws his claim into question. The dispute is no longer just a criminal matter of a gang of outlaws taking over a piece of ground; now it’s a civil issue that will have to be mediated in the courts. This kind of legal battle, with its near-endless appeal process, could easily last 15 years. If Janwani hopes to develop or sell the parcel during that time, he’d be better off just letting his assailants have the property in exchange for a fraction of its value.


Bangalore’s Mobster Turned Mogul: Muthappa Rai is an Indian real estate power broker. He used to be a mafia don, wanted for murder by the Indian police. Wired’s Scott Carney talks to the Bangalore land baron. 

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Bangalore, the fifth-most populous city in India, is the tech outsourcing capital of the world. In the past decade, more than 500 multinational corporations have established office parks, call centers, and luxury hotels here. The arrival of US companies like Adobe, Dell, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Yahoo, along with the emergence of homegrown outfits like Infosys and Wipro, has transformed this sleepy outpost into a premier showcase of globalism. Bangalore accounted for more than a third of India’s $34 billion IT export market in 2007. Upscale commercial spaces like UB Tower, modeled after the Empire State Building, and first-rate educational institutions like the Indian Institute of Science set the standard for what India could become.

But there’s a dark side to Bangalore’s rocket ride. City officials—at least those who aren’t taking bribes—struggle to reconcile the gleaming promise of the information economy with the gritty reality of systemic corruption, a Byzantine justice system, and a criminal underworld more than willing to maim and murder its way into control of the city’s real estate market. As tech companies gobble up acreage, demand has pushed prices into the stratosphere. In 2001, office space near the center of town sold for $1 a square foot. Now it can go for $400 a square foot. Janwani bought his 6-acre plot in 1992 for $13,000. Today, even undeveloped, it’s worth $3 million.


A guard carrying a short-barrel shotgun patrols the area around Muthappa Rai’s home.
Photograph: Scott Carney

But high prices are only part of the problem for businesses looking for space in the city. It’s nearly impossible to determine who actually owns any given piece of Bangalorean real estate. Some 85 percent of citizens occupy land illegally, according toSolomon Benjamin, a University of Toronto urban studies professor who specializes in Bangalore’s real estate market. Most land in the city, as in the rest of India, is bound by ancestral ties that go back hundreds of years. Little undisputed documentation exists. Moreover, as families mingle and fracture over generations, ownership becomes diluted along with the bloodline. A buyer who wants to acquire a large parcel may have to negotiate with dozens of owners. Disputes are inevitable.

That’s where Bangalore’s land mafia comes in. With the courts tied up in knots, gangsters offer to secure deeds in days rather than years. “Businesspeople like to do their business, but many times the system does not permit them to do it,” says Gopal Hosur, the city’s joint police commissioner. “Because of escalating land values, unscrupulous elements get involved. They use muscle power to take control of the land.” Some 40 percent of land transactions occur on the black market, according to Arun Kumar, an economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Often the local authorities facilitate these deals. A World Bank report rated the Bangalore Development Authority, which oversees urban planning, as one of the most corrupt and inefficient institutions in India.


Lokesh’s nickname, “Malama”, means “medicine”. As in if you have a problem, Lokesh is the medicine. He is a well-known rowdie who settles real estate deals with force.
Photos: Scott Carney

On the ground, violence is meted out by local toughs like “Mulama” Lokesh, whose first name means “medicine”—as in, if you have a problem, Lokesh has the cure. He’s an old-school gangster who happily shows off a bag full of curved swords called longs and cruel Chinese-made knives that he keeps in the trunk of his car. Despite a record of charges that include murder and extortion, even he is wistful for the old days. “The money is so big now that the value of human life has gone down,” he says. “Now people fight with guns.”


Foreign Investment in Bangalore (in millions).

Inspector S. K. Umesh holds a cell phone a few inches from his ear, eavesdropping on a conversation. Since he became a police inspector four and a half years ago, his district’s crime rate has plummeted by 75 percent. He’s killed five of the city’s most wanted criminals and caught more supari killers—contract hit men—than any other officer in Karnataka, the state in which Bangalore is located. Every few seconds, the wiretap emits a soft beep. Wrapping his hand over the receiver, he says, “Without surveillance, we wouldn’t be anywhere.”

Umesh estimates that Bangalore is home to nearly 2,000 gangsters, 90 percent of them vying for a stake in the real estate market. Calling up a file on his computer, Umesh scrolls through hundreds of mug shots, offering a running commentary on which subjects have committed murder.

Umesh points to a face on his screen: Muthappa Rai. Owing to a successful career as a mob don, Rai has a net worth measured in billions of dollars. Once he was among the most wanted men in India. Today he professes to have reformed, renouncing violence and founding a charitable organization. But he’s also in real estate.

“In a way, Rai is just like any other goonda in Bangalore,” Umesh says. Still, the mobster has made his mark on the city’s underworld. In the 1980s, land disputes were settled with fists, knives, swords, and bamboo canes. But after Rai’s arrival in the mid-’80s, guns became the weapon of preference. He often outsourced the violence to pros who learned their trade on the streets of Mumbai and dispatched their victims with firearms.


These curved swords known as “longs” and chinese knives came from the back of Lokesh’s trunk. He keeps them on hand just in case he, or his men, have to use them.
Photograph: Scott Carney

“He started out with a few card parlors and cut his teeth killing the leaders of rival gangs” Umesh says. Rai murdered a rival in an early ’90s drive-by shooting, the inspector explains. Then he fled to Dubai, where he continued his operations. As the price of real estate back home began to take off, he paid $75,000 for the murder of a developer named Subbaraju who refused to sell a plot of land that Rai wanted. The lot would have become an upscale mall had not the hired assassin dropped his cell phone at the scene with Rai’s Dubai number on redial. Later, the killer fingered Rai as his employer. Rai admitted ordering the hit to a Bangalore news reporter.

In 2001, Interpol issued a Red Notice—essentially an international arrest warrant—for Rai’s extradition. Umesh flew to Dubai to help. The Dubai police nabbed Rai at his home, which had two Mercedes-Benzes parked outside, one red and one purple.

“But none of this matters,” Umesh says. “The court acquitted him, and in India there is no such thing as double jeopardy.” How could such a tightly wrapped case unravel? “It is very difficult to move things in our judicial system,” Umesh says. Moreover, testimony can be hard to come by. “There were lots of things going on: intimidation, tampering with witnesses.” Few victims of mob violence will speak out, for fear of further harm. Witnesses are threatened; judges are afraid to try powerful mobsters.

I meet with Subbaraju’s son, Jagdish Raju, a few blocks from where his father was killed, at an office building he leases to the government. His eyes fill with tears. “How can we fight the Muthappa Rais of the world?” he asks. “There was no use. What’s done is done.”

Umesh takes such hopelessness in stride. “Police work is like a sport,” he observes. His job is to bring criminals to court, but he holds little hope of seeing them convicted.

Two burly men carrying shotguns smile grimly as I drive past the first checkpoint to Muthappa Rai’s fortified compound. I’m an hour south of Bangalore in a patchwork of fallow fields and construction sites. Rai’s mansion comes into view at the top of a hill, a giant white building surrounded by a 20-foot-high concrete wall.

At the gate, armed security guards frisk me. They inspect my digital recorder to be sure it’s not a bomb. A golf cart carries me over an intricate driveway of cut brick. Hopping out at the front door, I step onto a floor of polished Italian marble.

Rai’s home is immense and gaudy, replete with gold ornaments and crystal chandeliers. Though he spends almost all his time here, the house feels eerily unlived-in, like a hotel lobby, as a platoon of servants keeps every surface shining. In the garage sits a bulletproof Land Cruiser. An attendant tells me Rai outbid Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister of Pakistan, for it. The vehicle is built to withstand AK-47 bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.


Muthappa Rai says that he has reformed from a life of organized crime and is now a social worker and real estate developer.
Photograph: Scott Carney

Rai greets me with a charismatic grin. I ask about the need for such high security. “I am suffering for all of the things I did in my past,” he says. “I can’t trust anyone, not the government and certainly not my old enemies.” In 1994, in court on extortion charges, Rai was shot five times by a gunman dressed as a lawyer. Although he managed to beat the rap, he languished in bed for two years. The man who hired Rai’s assailant wasn’t so lucky; he was gunned down while the don lay in his sickbed. Did Rai order retaliation? He lets out a hearty laugh. “Five bullets,” he says cryptically.

But those days are behind him, he says. He has reinvented himself as a champion of Karnataka’s downtrodden. The primary layer in Rai’s veneer of respectability is Jaya Karnataka, a nonprofit social services organization with political overtones that, according to its Web site, appeals to a “universal order based on principles of human dignity, solidarity of people, and freedom of communication.” Jaya Karnataka runs free health camps around the state, digs wells in drought-stricken areas, and funds cataract and open-heart surgeries for the poor. Since Rai founded the group 18 months ago, membership has swelled to 700,000 in more than 300 branches across the state. Many people assume the group is Rai’s first sally in an upcoming bid for public office.

The organization also serves as a storefront for Rai’s main line of work: real estate. “When a foreign company wants to set up a business, they don’t know who to trust,” he says. “They need clear titles, and if they go to a local person, they’re going to get screwed with legal cases. But if Rai gives you a title, it comes with a 100 percent guarantee of no litigation. No cheating. It’s perfectly straightforward.” On any given day, he says, 150 people make their way to his opulent mansion to seek his help. He declines to name clients—association with his name might be bad for their business—but he lets slip that he recently acquired 200 acres of land for the titanic Indian conglomerate Reliance. A US firm looking to rent or buy might also go through Rai, but not directly. A facilities administrator in Bangalore—probably Indian—would work with a developer who, in turn, would contact Rai to secure a plot. “There’s no question of American companies coming to buy land,” he says.


Two guards armed with shotguns protect the front gate to Rai’s mansion.
Photograph: Scott Carney

According to a lawyer who deals with land issues, the system works like this: Asked to intercede by a prospective buyer, Rai checks out the parcel for competing owners. If two parties assert ownership, he hears both sides plead their case and decides which has the more legitimate claim (what he calls “80 percent legal”). He offers that person 50 percent of the land’s current value in cash. To the other, he offers 25 percent to abandon their claim—still a fortune to most Indians, given the inflated price of Bangalorean real estate. Then he sells the land to his client for the market price and pockets the remaining 25 percent. Anyone who wants to dispute the judgment can take it up with him directly.

Rai’s lieutenant, Sangeeth—who prefers to be identified as the boss’s “blue-eyed boy”—says that violence is almost never an issue. “All anyone needs to hear is his name,” he says. “If a rowdy won’t back down, then we go to the person who is behind him and cut it off at the spine,” Sangeeth explains. “In the hypothetical instance where it does need to come to violence, someone might need to be beaten up. The next day we would leave a message that we were behind it and that this was just a warning. The name alone has power.”

Paradoxically, Rai’s strong-arming may be helping to curb violence in Bangalore. With a system in place—even a corrupt system—everyone knows how the game is played. As a result, fewer people get hurt. Or, as Rai would have it, “ultimately, everyone wants to settle. No one wants to go to the courts.”


Traffic and land mafia are some of hottest political issues in Bangalore. Anti-corruption candidates routinely target both for votes.
Photograph: Scott Carney

India’s judicial system may be convoluted, but it’s not as corrupt as its law enforcement agencies. In August 2008, Bangalore’s new police commissioner issued a memo to police stations trying to rein in widespread corruption. The circular begins: “It is alleged repeatedly in the press, as well as by the members of the public, and the floor of the legislature, that police officers have converted their police stations in Bangalore city as offices to settle land disputes and are taking huge amounts of illegal gratification. This does not augur well for our department.” The next 16 pages are filled with instructions for handling suspected mob activity and land disputes. Officers are threatened with strict censure if they fail to comply. Unfortunately, the guidelines are toothless because the department has yet to find an effective way to police the police.

Collusion between enforcers and mobsters raises troubling questions about the future of this city. “Since Bangalore went global, things have gotten worse,” says Santosh Hegde, his graying hair dyed jet-black and a chain of prayer beads around his neck. He’s the state official responsible for prosecuting corruption cases. “Businesspeople want to get things done quickly, and they have no option but to bribe officials to shortcut the bureaucracy,” he says.

Hegde, 68, served six years on India’s Supreme Court before taking the anticorruption beat. He oversees a team of accountants who burrow through documents and field operatives trained in covert recordings and sting operations. Since assuming office, Hegde has charged more than 300 officials with receiving cash bribes totaling over $250,000 and illegal assets and land holdings worth $40 million. That’s just 5 percent of total bribery in Karnataka, he says, which he estimates at more than $800 million. When we meet, local newscasters are reporting his latest triumph: the arrest of five civil servants who had allegedly collected $1.5 million in illegal assets and cash.


A painted over sign to Chhabria Jarwani’s land. Three days before this picture was taken, a gang of almost 40 men stormed this plot of land and took it over. Their first action was to paint over the owner’s name in order to orchestrate a false legal claim against him.
Photograph: Scott Carney

Hegde blames the avalanche of corruption on the outsourcing boom. “Certainly IT companies contribute to the problem,” he says. “They work with people who have only a shady title to the land. Then they occupy buildings that are constructed illegally, without permission from the authorities. I don’t want to name specific firms, but huge companies build illegally here.”

Hegde lodges a new case almost every day, but the power of his office is limited. To bring a case to court, he needs permission from what regulations call “the competent authority.” This usually means the malefactor’s superior officer, who has little motivation to expose corruption within his own department.

Hegde has reviewed two complaints that mention Muthappa Rai. In one case, a landowner alleged that Rai’s men tried to intimidate him into selling a lot in Electronics City, a Bangalore suburb packed with IT companies. He asked the police for protection. “The officer told him that it was best to settle—an obvious case of corruption,” Hegde says. “We began an investigation, and suddenly the man who filed the complaint disappeared. We had to close the case.”

Still, Hegde remains hopeful—and defiant. “I have lived a full life already,” he says. “If they kill me, I will die happy. And if Muthappa Rai gets public office, he’ll be under my jurisdiction,” he adds with a wry smile.

Back in his mansion on the outskirts of Bangalore, Rai stretches out on a leather sofa and smiles. “Foreign companies come in and everything improves,” he says. “I have seen this happen the whole world over. Now I’m helping make it happen here.”

Scott Carney (www.scottcarneyonline.comcovered the Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car, in issue 16.07.


Cutthroat Capitalism

(originally published in Wired)

see the full data-driven story by clicking the link above. This isn’t a story that can be told in words. It has to be seen.

The rough  f i s h e r m e n of the so-called somali coast guard are unrepentant criminals, yes, but they’re more than that. they’re innovators. Where earlier sea bandits were satisfied to make off with a dinghy full of booty, pirates who prowl northeast Africa’s gulf of Aden hold captured ships for ransom. this strategy has been fabulously successful: the typical payoff today is 100 times what it was in 2005, and the number of attacks has skyrocketed. ¶ Like any business, somali piracy can be explained in purely economic terms. it flourishes by exploiting the incentives that drive international maritime trade. the other parties involved—shippers, insurers, private security contractors, and numerous national navies—stand to gain more (or at least lose less) by tolerating it than by putting up a serious fight. As for the pirates, their escalating demands are a method of price discovery, a way of gauging how much the market will bear. ¶ the risk-and-reward calculations for the various players arise at key points of tension: at the outset of a shipment, when a vessel comes under attack, during ransom negotiations, and when a deal is struck. As long as national navies don’t roll in with guns blazing, the region’s peculiar economics ensure that most everyone gets a cut. ¶ All of which makes daring rescues, like the liberation in April of the Maersk Alabama’s captain, the exception rather than the rule. such derring-do may become more frequent as public pressure builds to deep-six the brigands. however, the story of the Stolt Valor, captured on september 15, 2008, is more typical. here’s how it played out, along with the cold, hard numbers that have put the somali pirate business model at the center of a growth industry.

Once you’re done reading the story check out the video game that Wired produced to go along with it.

Download the .pdf.


Red Markets

Originally published in Wired.

Is the human body sacred? Or is it a commodity ready to be chopped up and exposed to the forces of supply and demand? The answer is a matter of perspective. Our own body is a temple. But when we need a spare part, suddenly we’re surprisingly open to a transaction. To a person looking for a kidney, a scientist trying to learn anatomy, a beauty parlor customer looking for the perfect ‘do, there’s no substitute for a piece of someone else.

The problem is, demand for replacement flesh grossly outstrips supply. In the US and like-minded countries, it’s illegal to sell body parts—they can be taken only from those who filled out a donor card before they died or who are willing to give up an organ out of sheer benevolence. This means there isn’t enough tissue to go around. So, as with any outlawed or heavily regulated resource, a bustling underground trade has formed.

Sometimes the market in body parts is exploitive: Desperate people are paid tiny sums for huge donations. Other times it is ghoulish: Pieces are stolen from the recently dead. And every so often, the resource grab is lethal—people are simply killed for their organs. Welcome to the red market.



Spider Man

Originally published in Wired

Jaimie Mantzel takes self-reliance very, very seriously. The reclusive inventor constructed a workshop from scratch in the rugged backwoods of Vermont, cutting logs into road boards with a homemade band saw. The purpose of that workshop? To build—on his own—a 12-foot-high spiderlike walking robot capable of carrying a human pilot. It’s a monstrosity Mantzel is creating out of equal parts metal and passion: Every runner, joint, and gear will be shaped by hand. Mantzel has documented his project on YouTube, garnering more than 2 million views. The first video showed a toy-size prototype scurrying across the floor. The latest shows a towering monster. Since the hexapod design is basically a round body bristling with appendages, turning is a breeze: The control platform in the center will simply rotate above the legs—wherever it is facing is the new forward.

After more than three years of toil, Mantzel is still trying to get the bot up and walking. “Honestly, there’s no way in hell I’m getting on that thing till it’s well tested; it’s kinda scary,” he admits. At first it will be six-legged baby steps, directed by remote control. If it looks stable, he’ll climb aboard. Mantzel envisions the contraption eventually pulling lumber up the muddy track to his house—a handmade dome structure, natch. Whether or not he turns it into a cargo transporter, Mantzel’s dreambot is making waves. A British toy manufacturer that saw his videos is now planning to put bite-size versions on store shelves. When the Giant Robot Project is complete, he says, he’ll go lie on his trampoline and dream up another ambitious endeavor. He has no specific plan yet, but he does have a working title: “Project Bite Off More Than I Can Chew.”