Over the past few weeks, an unusual case has been playing out in the Kerala courts—Anupama Chandran, the daughter of a local CPIM leader in Thiruvananthapuram, has alleged that her parents put up her child, born in October 2020, for adoption without her consent. Her parents, who disapproved of her relationship with the baby’s father, had given up the baby via Ammathottil, the state government’s care system for abandoned children. With the help of the police, Anupama traced the child to a foster home in Andhra Pradesh but prospective parents had already been identified for the baby, who was handed over. She’s now fighting to get the child back. The case has indicated a number of flaws and gaps in the adoption system.
In earlier years, when I started out as a reporter, many orphanages and nursing homes “gave away” children born to unwed mothers, impoverished parents or survivors of rape. Faced with the prospect of social ostracism or penury, many young mothers agreed to give their babies away. There were no formalities, no written consent. Adoption was projected as a life-saving option, especially if the prospective parents came from Western countries. And the babies once given could not be taken back.
“Gave away” was really a euphemism. Most babies were actually sold by institutions. Sometimes the biological mother was threatened, tricked or coerced into giving up the child; sometimes the baby was stolen from her. Or the biological parents would be paid a pittance and the child would be sold to a foreign adoption agency for a higher price.
I once interviewed a woman whose husband had sold their third baby because she was a girl. He did it without her consent and with the connivance of a hospital attendant. She could never get her baby back, she said, because the adoptive mother’s name had been entered as the birth mother in the records. She did not have the means to fight to get her baby back.
By the 1970s and 80s trafficking in babies had become lucrative. Shady “orphanages” would even kidnap babies off the street from pavement dwellers. It was mandatory to publish photographs of abandoned children in the papers but most often the details were fudged, which meant that even if the biological parents were looking for a missing child they could not find it. Many orphanages, like the ones run by the Missionaries of Charity, had a “no disclosure” rule, which meant that even if they wanted to, adopted children in search of their roots could not find their biological parents.
There are quite a few documentaries that follow adults who return to India in search of their biological families. Many discover that their biological parents didn’t actually abandon them—some left them with relatives or in what they thought were hostels to earn a living. The children were then sold to foreign adoption agencies.
Years later, it seems like little has changed in the adoption space, and that gaps persist in the system. In a recent article in Hindustan Times, Avinash Kumar, founder-director Families of Joy Foundation, pointed out that the number of children in the CARA (Central Adoption Resource Authority) pool dropped from 2,317 in March 2020 to 2,173 by October 2021. This is puzzling, he says, because “according to an affidavit filed by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, more than 3,600 children have been orphaned as a result of covid-19 and other causes since the start of the pandemic. The official figure quoted by the women and child development (WCD) ministry is 600 orphans— this lacks credibility given the scale of covid-19 deaths in the country”. It’s very worrying—where have these orphans gone?
When CARA was founded in 1990 the idea was to regulate and streamline the adoption process, but the old problems are returning, exacerbated by the pandemic and shutdowns to contain the novel coronavirus. Last month, a group of 300 prospective parents, including NRIs, wrote to the Ministry of Women and Child Development and CARA complaining about the increasing delay in the adoption process and the lack of transparency. They expressed the fear that illegal adoptions have crept back into the system. Whether its this letter from prospective parents or the case in the Kerala High Court, one thing is certain—the adoption system in India needs to be examined again before we end up with the kind of crisis we saw in the 1980s.