A business in babies

Print edition : April 28, 2001

Adoption agencies thrive on "human trade" as the practice of selling female babies continues among the Lambadas on the Karnataka-Andhra Pradesh border.

RAVI SHARMA in Konchavaram, Tandur & Hyderabad

"WHY do you want to take only my new-born daughter? Take all four of my daughters." Shivram Yadav was not being sarcastic. Nor was there any trace of remorse in his voice. Coming from a man who earns Rs.20 a day as and when he finds work as a daily wage earner, it was the expression of a bitter reality he and other members of the Lambada community had been coping with for long. The 35-year-old unlettered man from Wantichinta tanda (hamlet), 140 km from Hyderabad, sold his fifth child, a girl, a year ago for Rs.600. "What can I do? Gooribai (a Lambada woman from a nearby tanda) came and said 'you are poor, you can't look after your daughter. I will look after her and send her to school'. So I gave the child," Shivram Yadav said. Kamalabai, his wife, said that she was unable to eat for 15 days after giving away her child.

A large number of Lambadas live in tandas that dot the Konchavaram reserved forests on either side of the Karnataka-Andhra Pradesh border. They are steeped in poverty and the practice of abandoning or giving up their female babies is common among them. They do it now increasingly, for a price. Middlemen often posing as social workers or well-wishers "buy" the babies and hand them over to adoption centres. The tandas are mostly located in arid, inhospitable areas like Gulbarga district in northern Karnataka and Ranga Reddy district in Andhra Pradesh. Each tanda has a population of between 1,000 and 2,000, the majority being Lambadas. There are around 100 tandas in the Konchavaram forest area. The Lambadas, who speak Gorboli, a mixture of Hindi, Rajasthani and Gujarati, originally migrated to the Konchavaram forests from Rajasthan.

Changibai of Wantichinta tanda with her two remaining daughters.-RAVI SHARMA

The literacy rate among the Lambadas is lower than 20 per cent. Girls, if they go to school, do not study beyond Class V. Maruti Chauhan, a Lambada and a teacher at the Government Higher Primary School in Dharmasagar tanda, said the children do not attend school regularly. "They are used by the families to work in the fields."

Agricultural work being seasonal, the rate of unemployment is high among the Lambadas. Their traditional occupations of collecting minor forest produce and cattle grazing have been curtailed in recent years after Konchavaram was declared a reserved forest. One of their long-standing demands is that they be given contracts to collect forest produce and sell them through societies run by them. They allege that persons from Andhra Pradesh have been cornering the contracts.

Health care facilities are woefully inadequate in the tandas. The primary health centres are understaffed and ill-equipped. Schemes such as the Karnataka Border Area Development Programme have not benefited them much.

Shocking instances of trade in female babies came to light following the arrest of Christopher Vinod of Hyderabad by the Andhra Pradesh Police on March 22. He was travelling by car to Hyderabad with three female babies. On being questioned, he was not able to tell the police about either the antecedents or destination of the babies. According to the police, he confessed later that he was taking them to the St. Teresa's Tender Loving Care Home (TLCH), a recognised adoption centre in Hyderabad. But Sister Teresa Maria, the chief coordinator of the TLCH, denied having met Vinod ever. She, however, said that Vinod could have brought the babies to the TLCH after an adoption centre at Tandur, 110 km from Hyderabad, refused to accept them, citing the poor state of their health. "He couldn't take them back to the parents, so he could have brought them to us," she said.

An accomplice of Vinod, Parvathibai, a Lambada from Zilvarsha tanda, was also arrested. Both claimed that the babies had been handed over to them by their parents.

A visit to the tandas shows that it does not take much to convince Lambadas to hand over newborn female children to such middlemen. The majority of them being unlettered, impoverished and burdened with huge families, Lambadas consider female children to be dispensable. The traditional belief that only male children can be sent to work and the fact that a relatively large sum of money (between Rs.40,000 to Rs.60,000) has to be paid as dowry have also contributed to the practice of selling female children. The women wait for the birth of at least one male child before undergoing sterilisation. (Curiously, several Lambada women told this correspondent that they had children even after undergoing tubectomy.) Most of the women complained that their husbands would get drunk and beat them for not giving birth to a male child.

Said Poonibai, 28, from Chindanur tanda, who gave away her female child just four days after birth in February: "When my fifth daughter was born, my husband was away in Mumbai working as a daily wage earner. I had no money. What can I do with another daughter? Who will pay the dowry? Parvathibai said she will look after the baby and send her to school; she even promised me that she would send my daughter to see me when she grows up. So I gave the baby away and took Rs.500."

Changibai, 25, of Wantichinta tanda lost her husband Limbaji last year, and her second husband deserted her a few months ago after she gave birth to a female child. She said: "I already had two daughters and what can I do with one more? So I gave away my baby to Gooribai who paid me Rs.500. She said that she would send her to school and later give her for adoption."

At the John Abraham Memorial Bethany Home at Tandur, Andhra Pradesh.-RAVI SHARMA

Similar were the stories of Baiamma, Sakabai and Gopibai of Dharmasagar tanda. They said that Parvathibai and Christopher Vinod had visited their tanda many times and promised to take their babies to the Konchavaram residential school or to give them for adoption to a "good home".

As two of the babies that were with Vinod at the time of his arrest were from tandas located on the Karnataka side of the border, the Karnataka Police, along with their Andhra Pradesh counterparts, have been investigating the matter. The Karnataka Police claimed that they had identified 19 babies who were taken from tandas in Karnataka to adoption homes in Andhra Pradesh. But when the police took the babies to their mothers they refused to take them back.

THE roles played by middlemen and adoption centres have come into focus. Middlemen, after paying money to the parents, take the babies to adoption centres in Andhra Pradesh. According to them, the babies are mainly meant for inter-country adoption. It is not clear whether the adoption centres follow the guidelines set by the Supreme Court in 1984 and also the Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA), a regulatory body under the Union Ministry of Social Justice. Shanta Reddy, member of the National Commission for Women who visited five recognised inter-country adoption centres, said: "I suspect that some mischief is going on in some of these adoption centres. In many cases there is no record to show where some of the babies are sent."

According to Alok Kumar, Superintendent of Police, Gulbarga, Gooribai and Parvathibai stated that they supplied babies regularly to, among others, Vinod and the John Abraham Memorial Bethany Home, a recognised adoption centre at Tandur in Andhra Pradesh. But with corroborative evidence hard to come by and in the absence of specific provisions in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to deal with the problem of people securing babies for adoption, it would be difficult to take action against Vinod, Gooribai and Parvathibai. The police have booked cases against them under Section 373 of the IPC. This provision pertains to the buying and selling of a minor child for the purpose of prostitution. But it would be difficult to prove that prostitution was the motive behind their securing babies.

The lack of legal provisions to punish the culprits in such instances has hampered the work of the police. The fate of an inquiry launched by the Criminal Investigation Department of the Andhra Pradesh Police in 1999 into similar cases is not known. Two institutions - the Good Samaritan Evangelical and Welfare Association and the Action for Social Development - were raided and their licences to facilitate inter-country adoptions was suspended (Frontline, May 7, 1999).

Based on the confessions of Gooribai and Parvathibai, the Karnataka Police visited the John Abraham Memorial Bethany Home on April 6 to arrest its co-founder, Savitridevi Samson. But she gave the police the slip by telling them that she was going to offer prayers. She is said to have escaped to Hyderabad. The police suspect that Savitridevi, a United States green card holder, might have fled to the U.S. The police could also not arrest Savitridevi's former husband, Robert Mahendran, co-founder of the Home. According to the police, Mahendran fell out with Savitridevi and, along with Vinod (who previously worked for the Home) and one Peter Subbiah, started a Hyderabad-based network to secure babies from the tandas. The 'success' of this group is said to have prompted its rivals to inform the police about Vinod's car ride on March 22.

The Karnataka Police, which arrested Sudarshan and Varaprasad, the legal adviser and the caretaker of the John Abraham Memorial Bethany Home respectively, claimed that it has evidence of fabrication and falsification of documents relating to the antecedents of the child, its relinquishment and its adoption at the Home. Said Alok Kumar, who visited both the John Abraham Memorial Bethany Home and the TLCH, "There is serious violation of Supreme Court guidelines and there are many procedural lapses. For example, the biological parents who relinquish the child have to be counselled against it. But many a time the real parents are nowhere in the picture. 'Parents' arranged for the purpose affix their signatures."

Many adoption centres have also had their recognition renewed despite their having violated the Supreme Court guidelines.

According to Shanta Reddy, as per the records 18 babies died at the John Abraham Memorial Bethany Home in the last four months of 2000. But there were no authentic death certificates. Pointing out that there were discrepancies between the records maintained by the Home and the Secretary of the Voluntary Coordinating Agency (VCA) (part of the regulatory system that was established following the Supreme Court order), Shanta Reddy accused the VCA of having given permission for adoption in one case even after the death of the child. She also pointed out: "The number of inter-country adoptions claimed to have been done by the St.Theresa's Tender Loving Care Home is a lot higher than the list produced by the VCA."

Shanta Reddy expressed surprise over the fact that many babies received from the tandas had been sent for inter-country adoption. "The adoption centres say that since the skin of the baby is dark, Indian couples won't take them, but babies from both the TLCH and the John Abraham Memorial Bethany Home are fair-skinned. It is obvious that inter-country adoption brings in the funds, subsidising in many institutions the hospitalisation costs of all the babies and the procedures for Indian adoptions. Each baby sent for inter-country adoption brings the centre, by their own admission, at least $3,000. Besides this they are given liberal donations."

Prem Kumar, secretary of the VCA, claimed that during his last visit to the John Abraham Memorial Bethany Home, in February, things looked all right. On the allegation that he had permitted the adoption of a baby girl who had died, Prem Kumar said that the details of the case were made known to him only in February 2001, several months after the incident took place. He stressed that the file on each baby was maintained meticulously and periodic reports from foreign nationals were received regularly. Admitting that there were "small problems," he said that the "VCA did not have much power to stem wrongdoing".

However, Frontline learnt that each inter-country adoption fetches the agency around $7,000 and the money is received abroad. (CARA has approved the collection of Rs.150 a day from the adopting parents from the day the baby enters the centre until the time it is adopted.)

Centres like the TLCH maintain that they will have to take into account the money spent on looking after the babies, most of them sick and malnourished, from the time of their arrival. Said Sister Maria: "VCA clearance takes nearly a year; plus there are costs like visa fees, which add up to Rs.15,000. And anyway all the healthy babies go to Indian couples; it is only the older, sickly or deformed babies that go abroad."

Admitting that the rules are bent at times, Sister Maria said that this was done only on humanitarian grounds. "If I stick to the rules and turn away a sick baby it may die or it could even be killed." Recollecting a recent visit to a Lambada house in Devarakonde, near Hyderabad, Sister Maria said that she saw newly born twin girls being eaten by ants. When she wanted to take the babies to the TLCH, the family members asked for a gold chain. "They said 'people come here and give money, why don't you also do so?' We refused and went back. A week later I got a call from the same family, telling us that the babies were in a bad condition and that we could take them. I asked themhem to hire a taxi and come. The babies were nursed back and were adopted by a Jewish Italian man. At most we pay the taxi charges in such cases."

RAVI SHARMA

A SUPREME Court judgment in the Lakshmikanth Pandey vs Government of India case has laid down certain guidelines on adoption.

Children can be brought for adoption when they are either relinquished or abandoned. While Hindus can adopt a child under the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956, Muslims, Christians and Parsis adopt children only as their guardians under the Guardians and Wards Act, 1890 (Frontline, May 7, 1999).

When a child is found abandoned, it can be brought to an adoption centre by any fit person or the centres themselves can go and collect it. The centre then approaches the State Juvenile Board for interim custody of the child. After the child's health improves, a petition is filed before the Juvenile Welfare Board. The Board, in turn, asks the local police and the State probationary officer to investigate the matter.

In the case of a relinquished child, its parents are first counselled against giving up the child. If they are not convinced, they are asked to sign the document of relinquishment. According to Manjula Iyer of Gilda Services, a government- recognised adoption centre in Hyderabad, shenanigans, if any, generally take place when babies are relinquished. "This mostly happens in the hospital or the nursing home."

If the biological mother wants the child back, whether it is abandoned or relinquished, she has to be given the child. In the case of an abandoned child only after a period of three months can the child be placed for adoption. An adoption deed is drawn up and is registered in the Sub-Registrar's office. The first preference is usually given to Indian couples who have already registered and about whom details are known to the adoption agency; then come non-resident Indians, followed by foreign nationals. While the Voluntary Coordinating Agency (VCA) takes care of adoptions within the country, the Scrutiny Committee is in charge of inter-country adoptions. If the prospective adoptive parents of a child are from abroad, the VCA has to send a letter to the Scrutiny Committee stating that no Indian couple wants to adopt the child.

Adoptive Indian couples are charged between Rs.10,000 and Rs.30,000; foreign nationals pay around $3,000. The charges vary from institution to institution. In India, West Bengal tops in the number of adoptions, with around 1,000 a year. In Maharashtra the figure is 800, Delhi 500 and Andhra Pradesh 450.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor