NEW DELHI: The latest scandal—now on the radar of Western crime busters—that triggered breaking headlines emerged from the heart of Delhi where young graduates, in tones that were alternately earnest and melodramatic, promised male offspring to gullible women through IVF and to send them abroad to undergo the process. All women who accepted the offer were charged anywhere between Rs 9 lakh and Rs 14 lakh. And they were guided by a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). The call centre had established a solid network of 100 IVF clinics across the country.

Cops who raided the call centre, stylishly called Korea Plaza, arrested as many as 24 people, among them four who claimed to have stakes in the business, and discovered a network spanning the entire Asian continent—mostly Southeast Asia and Dubai—for over four years. Preliminary investigations have revealed as many as 600,000 women had enrolled in the programme and travelled abroad. What is frightening is the fact that once the women returned to India, executives of Korea Plaza, refused to acknowledge them and even denied any links.

Doctors say the IVF or in vitro fertilisation is a process of fertilisation where an egg is combined with sperm outside the body. The process involves monitoring and stimulating a woman’s ovulatory process, removing an ovum or ova from the woman’s ovaries and letting sperm fertilise them in a liquid in a laboratory. Women who enrolled with the call centre were sent to Dubai, Singapore and Thailand to undergo IVF, some were even promised visits to the United States and United Kingdom.

“We are shocked, we are still grappling with details we have managed to gather from Korea Plaza,” said a top official of Delhi Police.

The cop, who said he cannot be named because investigations were still at a preliminary stage, said Korea Plaza came under the radar of Delhi Police earlier this year. The cops worked on a tip-off from a person who said he saw loads of women walking into the call centre but leaving within an hour or two. The caller said he was keen to send in a woman to get details of what he felt was a sprawling criminal operation targeting international clients. The cops got more information when they pressed the young person for details. The person—the cops did not share his name—eventually showed up at the police station in Karol Bagh, a bustling Delhi neighbourhood also popular for its market for dry fruits and second hand gadgets, also fakes.

The informer said he was aware of a similar scandal that had rocked India way back in 2013 when Washington had tracked an India-based scheme that was fleecing Americans, mostly recent immigrants. The scam was eventually estimated at a whopping $150 million.

The latest incident, it is reliably learnt, has shaken up the Union government and the Ministry of External Affairs has sought details of the case. The MEA officials are worried, ostensibly because India, which once had no reputation as a large-scale exporter of fraud, is now seen as a major centre of fraud pushed by computer-savvy, English speaking young boys and girls operating from various call centres with super-efficient technology. The accused may be charged under the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994.

The Union government banned Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act in 1994 to prevent sex-selective abortions and banned hospitals, nursing homes and clinics from using ultrasonography or any other techniques to determine the gender of an unborn child. Using such process is an offence and can lead to a three-year jail term or a Rs 10,000 fine. But the biggest problem is that the implementation of the law is horrible and rarely anyone follows the rule across the country. Many take advantage of the fact that sex selection is allowed in countries like the US, Thailand, Dubai, Singapore and Mexico.

“Korea Plaza would guarantee a male child by identifying the gender of the foetus. The couples were allowed to select the sex of the child before leaving the country,” said Dr Nutan Mundeja, director, Directorate of Family Welfare, Delhi government. Dr Mundeja was a part of the raid.

She said identifying the child’s gender through IVF and other technologies such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, pre-implantation genetic screening and sperm-sorting has emerged as the next challenge towards curbing female infanticide, it is now a new racket that is called India’s Reproductive Tourism.

Cops in the Karol Bagh police station said the owners of Korea Plaza would give their staffers trendy motorbikes and they themselves owned expensive cars ranging from Mercedes and BMW. One even had a Jaguar. “The owners knew how to make money, even ten times as much. They ran their operations as if there is no tomorrow.” Those working at Korea Plaza were paid anywhere between Rs 16,000-Rs 25,000 and bonuses were double or triple of that, based on sales.

Staffers arrested from Korea Plaza said they wanted a decent, salaried job and did not ever feel that what they were doing was illegal, even immoral. Some said they felt it was an honest, mundane customer service job of advising customers to a medical process. One of the arrested staffer told the cops that her job was to contact women and organise their travel, and she genuinely felt that there was no criminality involved. They would just read out a standard script and never felt what they were doing was actually a scam.

Eyewitnesses said it was an awful sight when the cops made the arrests. Some of those arrested called their parents, who came rushing. Some even offered the cops bribe to hush up the case fearing social ostracisation. The informer who alerted the cops was also at the site, he said he was determined to reach out to the cops because he wanted some form of law enforcement to take it down. He said he felt there was a risk of the fraud expanding aggressively across the country where demand for the male child remains on a perennial high. The cops surrounded the office, snapped the telephone lines and then blocked the main gate. And then the raid started. Everyone was shocked, some of the staffers started sobbing. The cops explained to them in detail why what they were doing was illegal.

“The entire operation was very shocking for us. Its scale of operations, its network and the demand for a male child,” said Nitin Kumar, a senior official of the Delhi government.

The key to the whole thing was Indians’ demand for the male child, the pressure as high as the nation’s rush to retain a white skin like Westerners. In North India, there is a huge preference for a male child, a practice, claim government officials, is now happening elsewhere in India. Government officials attribute Haryana’s strong preference for boys to the state’s ingrained belief that women are a liability rather than an asset. The preference also happens because of the state’s strong tilt towards men inheriting land. “Staffers at Korea Plaza guaranteed the male child after the process, everyone starting queuing up,” said the cop, adding: “The women were told to involve their husbands to make it full-proof. I have a feeling even if you shut down over 500 such call centres across the country, crimes like these will never stop.” Some of the customers paid in cash, bringing wads of note in trolley bags, rest did wire transfers from their banks. The operation was “Smooth As Silk”, once the tagline for Thailand’s national carrier.

Korea Plaza came under the radar of the cops after Delhi police inspectors raided an IVF clinic close to the Delhi University area. The cops had information that this call centre was conducting pre-natal sex determination tests. The gang behind the crime also stole sperm samples and eggs from IVF centres in the capital and sold these to childless couples who would come to the surrogacy centre run by its mastermind. The mastermind of the Kirti Nagar centre, Kavita Tokas, wife of a paramilitary officer, has been arrested and remanded to police custody.

Additional Commissioner of Police (Crime) Rajeev Ranjan said new revelations can be expected. Tokas, claimed Ranjan would stole sperms and eggs from IVF centres for sale to childless couples. She had doctors on her payrolls who would have the fertilised egg transplant in the uterus of the women capable of giving birth. For those incapable of conceiving, Tokas would arrange a surrogate mother for Rs 1 lakh and charge the couple another Rs 500,000 for the baby.

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