PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology
08 June 2020

Banking on Cord Blood: Decoding Amulets and Canisters in South India

Interview with Amishi Panwar on her PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology. By contextualising the two distinct yet similar modes of storing cord blood in Chennai, India – in canisters or in amulets – Dr Panwar unfolds the many modes and meanings of banking on cord blood: banking on the canister, on the amulet, on counselling, on blood, and finally on ethnicity. 

How did you come to choose your research topic?

From 2014 to 2015 I was working as a Research Assistant in India on Professor Aditya Bharadwaj’s project “Red Revolution: The Emergence of Stem Cell Biotechnologies in India” based at the Graduate Institute and funded by the European Research Council (ERC). The work involved researching and archiving media reports, managing data and documenting, identifying available grey literature, writing reports, collecting and annotating relevant publications, and scoping the field for stem cell facilities in India. These include transplant and research centres, banks and their subsidiaries, and governing bodies in India. Among these stem cell facilities are numerous private cord blood banks and a number of public cord blood banks. 

Stem cells possess the unique capacity to regenerate and differentiate extensively and have been touted as the promissory cure of the future. They are minute and fluid and have the potential to heal damaged tissues and improve life considerably. Cord blood is a potential source for hematopoietic (blood-producing) stem cells and is used to treat blood cancers and genetic blood disorders. Given these characteristics, stem cell science and the usage of stem cells types have received considerable scientific and academic attention around the globe. The concept of stem cell science and the spectre of these cells being presented as miracle cells were niche, complicated, and worthy of investigation.

More precisely, I wanted to investigate the many modes and meanings of banking on cord blood in Chennai, India. My thesis is indeed all about contextualising the concept and practice of storing cord blood, knowing that there are two distinct yet similar modes of storing blood: in canisters or in amulets. Storing cord blood/tissue in the amulet (a small, hollow piece of metal) is unique to South India while banking cord blood in canisters (a cylindrical metal container) is common all over India and the world. On the date of delivery, cord blood is collected via a syringe into a sterilised anticoagulation bag, which is shaken continuously until storage to prevent clotting. The sample must be transferred to a bank in less than 48 hours. It is preserved at minus 196 degrees centigrade in aluminium cassettes with stickers noting details of the child and mother along with the collection date and time, and finally stored inside a steel canister. On the other hand, pregnant mothers are encouraged to store dried cord stump/cord blood in amulets, which are believed to protect the child from harm and ill health. In the future, it may be mixed with milk to be consumed by the child when the need arises.

How do you formulate your thesis questions and what is your methodology?

My questions are: What does “banking on” cord blood mean? Given that the amulet is exclusive to the person concerned for a lifetime and the canister holds cord blood to be matched for transplant, how do the amulet and the canister become repositories of health in their respective cultural and scientific domains? The thesis draws on fifteen months of ethnographic immersion and conversations with haematologists, gynaecologists, lab technicians and people opting for banking in Chennai. 

What are your major findings?

Community banking is a new addition to the cord blood banking sector where a group of people becomes a private pool of users, who pay for, and bank, their children’s cord blood. Once the cord blood is banked, the HLA (human leukocyte antigen) is treated as the “identity antigen” of an individual seeking a blood stem cell match. In the process of finding a match, the thesis presents the formation of bio-communities of cord blood banking based on language being treated as a biomarker of ethnicity. In other words, by providing considerable proof in positing language as the community which holds the key to HLA blood stem cell matches, this work is a way forward in understanding kin relations not just via blood and reproduction but via solidarity, trust, and autonomy. With cord blood banking, science is aimed toward making personalised healthcare marketable.

Given the complicated terrain of niche stem cell science and the different types of banking, the thesis takes into account marketing and advertising strategies involving cord blood banks. This is supported by engaging with class, family, and gender relations that help in making the choice of donating cord blood (to public banks), storing it for private use, or opting for community banking. In addition, cord blood banking in the South Indian culture has had a cultural-historical significance; many parents opt for the method of storing dried cord blood and cord tissue in gold or silver amulets, depending on what they can afford. This amulet is tied around the neck, the waist, or the arm of the child for most of the child’s early years. The amulet draws our attention to a cosmology of life that plays out in the everyday in its performance as a symbol of prosperity, fertility, protection, and afterlife. The thesis unpacks this cosmology associated with the amulet and considers it as the centre of a culture that believes in the preservation for the future health of a child. It is important to note that the contents of the amulet and the amulet itself never mean one particular thing. It is context specific and can also mean protection from evil eye, or point to a long life, prosperity, and health. 

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Amishi Panwar defended her PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology of Development in March 2020. Professor Shalini Randeria presided the committee, which included Professor Aditya Bharadwaj, thesis director, and Professor Deepak Mehta, Dean of Academic Affairs, Professor, Sociology and Anthropology Department, Ashoka University, New Delhi, India.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Panwar, Amishi. “Banking on Cord Blood: Decoding Amulets and Canisters in South India.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2020.
Contact Dr Panwar for access.

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Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Rangeecha/