AN INVESTIGATION that involved the arrest of a Malaysian national and the “mock delivery” of a canister led the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) to conduct a search at a well-known in-vitro fertilization (IVF) clinic in Mumbai run by a top embryologist, who is now being probed in connection with the alleged smuggling of human embryos.
The search at the office of embryologist and IVF trainer, Dr Goral Gandhi, was conducted on March 16, a day after the DRI detained Malaysian national Partheban Durai on his arrival at the Mumbai international airport and seized a canister of human embryos. Gandhi is the scientific and laboratory director at the Indo Nippon IVF clinic in Bandra.
The DRI probe found that Durai, a “regular carrier” of human embryos, was to allegedly deliver the canister to the IVF clinic that Gandhi runs. DRI sources said officers questioned Durai and took him to the IVF clinic to complete a “mock delivery” before recording his arrest.
Gandhi has denied the allegations and approached the Bombay High Court, which asked the DRI Monday not to take any coercive steps against her till April 3. A division bench of Justices Ranjit More and Bharati Dangre also directed Gandhi to appear before the DRI on March 22.
According to DRI officials, this is the first instance of the agency investigating a case related to the alleged smuggling of human embryos. Speaking to The Indian Express, a DRI official claimed that the agency “searched the office premises of the IVF centre and recovered incriminating documents related to the smuggling of embryos”. The official claimed the “carrier” revealed during questioning that it was his “seventh or eighth” trip with smuggled embryos.
According to Customs laws, the import of human embryos is prohibited since 2015 except for research based on guidelines and permission from the Department of Health Research.
Gandhi, who founded Indo Nippon IVF, was earlier the laboratory director and vice president (operations) at Rotunda Centre for Human Production from 2000 till 2017. Since 2010, Rotunda has been embroiled in a controversy over allegedly facilitating egg donation from a minor slum girl in its Bandra clinic. The case is under trial at an Andheri court.
The Indo Nippon clinic specialises in egg freezing, embryo transfer, surrogacy, segmented IVF and intracytoplasmic sperm injection.
According to IVF experts, the illegal import of embryos could be feeding the market for surrogacy — for foreign or Indian couples who wish to have an Indian surrogate mother to reduce costs — or for IVF procedures in which the parents want a child with “non-Indian looks”.
Malaysia does not permit surrogacy under Islamic law. IVF experts, however, believe Malaysian couples may be exporting their embryos for illegal surrogacy in India. The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016, passed by the Lok Sabha in 2018, bans commercial surrogacy but permits altruistic surrogacy.
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) bans the import of embryos or gametes — by 2015-end, human embryos were placed under the restricted category. “Even a no-objection certificate is not issued by the Council for any import,” said Dr R S Sharma, senior director, ICMR.
The Council only allows export of embryos in cases where foreign nationals started their IVF procedure in India but continued the process abroad.
About three months ago, the ICMR submitted to the Ministry of Health and Director General of Foreign Trade guidelines mandating stringent checks before import of human embryos or gametes can be permitted. They are yet to be implemented.
Sujay Kantawala, the lawyer representing Gandhi, said: “It was submitted before the High Court that on March 15, at least 7 to 8 DRI officials reached the Bandra clinic and conducted searches for over four hours. The CCTV was switched off during the period. While documents were taken from the clinic and a spot inventory done, copies were not given to her.”
Kantawala blamed “a conspiracy hatched by persons which may include competitors”. He claimed that the DRI called Gandhi on March 14, stating that Durai had brought embryos on her instructions. “She denied the allegation following which the officials went to search her clinic on March 15,” he claimed.
Ravi Hirani, who is representing Durai, claimed: “Durai has been detained for the past few days but was placed under arrest only today. The Malaysian Embassy has asked me to pursue the case.”