Adoption as a deal

Print edition : April 24, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

The busting of a racket involving the sending of infants of the Lambada tribe in adoption to the West has kicked up a controversy in Andhra Pradesh.

LAMBADA, a hamlet in Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh, populated by a tribal community of the same name, has in the past two years been the centre of a flourishing trade in the export of infants, mainly female, to the United States and Europe for adoption, it has been revealed. The racket, which operated through some organisations that offered children for adoption, was busted by the police after a Telugu daily reported the sale of an infant from Lambada. The details that emerged from the police investigations were shocking.

A breakthrough in the investigation came when Kheri, a tribal woman, told the police that she had 'brokered' six months earlier the sale of three children from Janareddy Colony and Srirampalli village under Halia mandal. This information led investigators to the Good Samaritan and Evangelical Welfare Association (GSEWA), run by Peter Subbaiah, who hails from Sathyavedu in Chittoor district.

The police raided a creche run by Subbaiah in the Mahendra Hills area of Secunderabad. This led to the discovery of 56 infants, all of them brought from thandas (tribal hamlets) in the Devarakonda and Chandampet areas of the backward Nalgonda district. Home Minister A. Madhava Reddy personally led the raid.

Soon afterwards, three centres of another adoption agency, Action for Social Development (ASD), run by N. Sanjeeva Rao, were raided in Gandhinagar in Hyderabad. As many as 124 infants were found in these places. It is estimated that the ASD has despatched 172 babies to foster parents in the U.S., Australia, Germany, Norway and Spain since 1991 and the relatively new GSEWA more than 200 children to the U.S., United Kingdom, Belgium and other European countries. In all, nearly 400 babies have been procured by these agencies for adoption in foreign countries.

THE operation has been so fine-tuned that often the deal is of a "from the womb to the West" nature. In many cases foetuses are 'booked' by brokers and an advance is paid for the nourishment of the pregnant women. Immediately after birth, the infant is shifted to Hyderabad and the documentation is prepared for its adoption outside the country.

The first recorded case of adoption from the Lambada community can be traced to a humanitarian deal made in 1997 when one Sabhavath Ramu Chouhan, who was on a visit to his village Teldevarapally in Chandampet mandal, was informed that a cousin of his did not want to bring up her newborn female twins. Chouhan persuaded her to give away the infants to a voluntary organisation for adoption and arranged for a visit to Teldeverapally by representatives of the adoption agency at Sanjeevareddynagar in Hyderabad.

The woman's husband, however, demanded money for handing over the babies. His demand was refused. His father, however, visited the adoption centre and urged the missionaries to accept the babies on humanitarian grounds. The organisation accepted the twins and, out of sympathy for the poor family, paid Rs.1,500 towards the woman's medical expenses.

This incident set off a wave of adoptions in the poverty-stricken region. Several parents were eager to give away their girl children, and Chouhan's services were used to send three more newborns of tribal parents to the Sanjeevareddynagar adoption centre. The missionaries obtained consent letters from the parents and allowed them the option of taking their children back within three months in case they changed their minds.

What started off as an act of service by missionaries soon became a money-spinner for clever operators who floated what they claimed were voluntary organisations. On the face of it, it would seem that parents who live in penury were volunteering to offer their children for adoption in the hope that at least the children would lead better lives. But a disturbing fact is that money played a major role in persuading poor families to part with their babies.

Invariably the deals were weighted in favour of the adoption centres which paid Rs.5,000 or less to the parents for each child and charged $2,500-3,000 (between Rs.1.05 lakhs and Rs.1.06 lakhs) from the foster parents. "The racket was quite widespread. Lambada children are preferred because of their fair complexion, sturdy features and resistance to infections," said Ch. Rajakumari, president of the Andhra Pradesh Mahila Samakhya.

PREDICTABLY, the controversy has developed a political angle, with the major political parties in the State trying to gain mileage from it. Peter Subbaiah, director of the GSEWA, is a Congress person. As secretary of the Chittoor District Congress(I) Committee, he played a prominent role in making arrangements for AICC(I) president Sonia Gandhi's public meeting at Tirupati on January 28 this year. Members belonging to the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) flaunted in the Assembly posters showing Subbaiah in the company of APCC(I) president Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy and former Chief Minister N. Janardhana Reddy. This was to hit back at the Congress(I) which had produced in the Assembly posters showing Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu with Ramakrishna Gowd, an accused in a case relating to counterfeit currency.

Some of the infants caught in the adoption controversy, at Niloufer Hospital in Hyderabad, as many as three to four to a bed.-SNAPS INDIA

The TDP was further embarrassed when Congress(I) MLAs displayed posters showing Minister for Women Development and Child Welfare Padala Aruna in the company of Peter Subbaiah. The Minister denied any links with Subbaiah but admitted having visited the office of Subbaiah's organisation.

MORE embarassment was in store for the Government. Six of the rescued children died in quick succession, five of them in the government-run Niloufer Hospital in Hyderabad, owing to ailments ranging from measles to bronchopneumonia and diarrhoea. Public outrage over the ham-handed manner in which the hospital treated the children put the Government on the defensive.

Chandrababu Naidu visited the hospital, with mediapersons in tow, and ended up sparking another row. He rapped the hospital's Superintendent, Dr.M.M. Reddy, and questioned the competence of its paediatricians. Chandrababu Naidu's was an emotional outburst prompted by an unrelated incident in which an infant died, allegedly because of the negligence of the hospital staff. The wailing mother had brought the child's body to the Chief Minister.

Doctors went on strike protesting against the Chief Minister's remarks and his decision to shift all the infants to corporate hospitals which had air-conditioned neo-natal units. The strike focussed public attention on the State Government's failure to improve its public hospitals in spite of all its emphasis on hi-tech and information technology. "What is the point in saying that you spend Rs.1,300 crores on primary health care with World Bank assistance when you cannot take care of Niloufer Hospital, a premier paediatric institute which attracts patients from all over Andhra Pradesh and some districts of Karnataka?" asked Janardhana Reddy.

Congresspersons submitted a memorandum to Governor C. Rangarajan demanding the dismissal of the Home Minister and the Child Welfare Minister on the grounds they had prior knowledge of the child trafficking. They said that the police had raided the ASD office a few years ago and submitted a report about its activities but the Government had renewed the organisation's licence. Jamuna, who works with Gramya, a voluntary organisation in Chandampet mandal of Nalgonda district, said: "This business is not new. We had brought this to the notice of the Government two years ago but it took no action."

Even in respect of the GSEWA, the State Government had issued an order on May 14, 1998, declaring it "a fit institution" for dealing with cases under the Juvenile Justice Act. The Government justified its action on the grounds that the GSEWA had already secured recognition from the Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA), which comes under the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and is the national regulatory body in matters of adoption, thus enabling itself to approach competent courts to get foreigners declared as guardians of Indian children.

Andhra Pradesh Health Minister Dr. N. Janardhan Reddy examines an infant at Niloufer Hospital. After the death of a few of the infants, they were all shifted to private hospitals.-SNAPS INDIA

CARA's role in the episode has been questioned by the State Government because it is the latter that grants permission to institutions to pick up infants abandoned in government hospitals by mothers, while CARA gives only permission for adoption. It is clear that the adoption centres bypassed CARA guidelines, which stipulate that no one, including Indian or foreign agencies, should make monetary profits out of the adoption process. Yet CARA granted recognition to the GSEWA. It also failed to act when the U.S. Consulate in Chennai expressed its dissatisfaction over the poor documentation made available for the adoption of children by U.S. citizens.

According to Tejavat Bellaiah Nayak, convener of Nangara Bheri, an organisation that fights for the rights of Lambadas, the issue of child trafficking boils down to the problem of abject poverty in the Lambada tribe. Of late, members of the community have shunned their traditional culture and adopted modern ways. "This has led to new problems such as dowry, owing to which they view the girl child as a burden," he said.

The adoption centres have displayed photographs of well-dressed children living abroad in happiness with their foster parents. People like Peter Subbaiah justify the activity saying that biological mothers would have resorted to infanticide if the adoption centres had not intervened. But this hardly justifies attempts to make money out of the tribal people's compulsion to tear infants away from their mothers' laps.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor