The recent report of a new-born girl child found abandoned in a dustbin near the Radio Club in Colaba on October 26, and pronounced dead when admitted to hospital, evokes shock and despair.
Shock: ‘Was this the only way out?’
Despair: ‘Could this child have lived?’
There are at least 14 organisations in Mumbai who could have found the child a home. And there are 35 government-established Child Welfare Committees in Maharashtra (roughly one per district), whose chief purpose is rehabilitation of children who are in need of care and protection.
The mother who left her child to die in a dustbin clearly did not know she had other options — legally relinquishing the child to an orphanage, adoption agency or social worker.
She could even have left it in the cradle outside the Haji Mohammad Haji Sabu Siddiqui Maternity Hospital at Prabhadevi or the Bal Vikas Sanstha, Malad, who take in babies that mothers simply don’t have the means or social approval to keep.
So why do we hear of so many babies being abandoned these days? Is it lack of information, a desperate need for anonymity or sheer futility? “It could be a combination of all,” says Sunil Arora, administrator, Bal Asha Trust, a children’s home and adoption agency in Mahalaxmi.
“Unwed motherhood is still a social stigma for women,” he adds.
Dr Shailaja Mhatre, chairperson, Child Welfare Committee (CWC), Maharashtra, thinks there are two reasons: a fear of adoption procedures and a lack of awareness of bodies like the CWC. “Some women might feel that they could get entangled in the paperwork,” she says, “although the surrender procedure is not at all complicated and usually done in a day.”
Says Arora, “Relinquishing an unwanted child with an adoption agency or orphanage was far easier about eight years ago. At that time, a woman could give up her baby with no questions asked. Later, it required a declaration to the Indian Council of Social Welfare (ICSW) on a Rs 100 stamp paper. A few years later, it was a Rs 100 stamp paper which had to be notarised. Since February 2009, a child can be surrendered to an adoption agency in the presence of a CWC member with a declaration, minus the ICSW.
Arora admits that the paperwork involved might be daunting for some women, but insists, “I have no reason to believe it is a deterrent. It has never happened that a woman has come to us with a baby and not gone through with it because she was overwhelmed by the procedure.”
He explains that the paperwork is important, “mainly to safeguard the mother and the adoption agency and also ensure that the mother gets a fair chance to reconsider her decision. She has 60 days to do that, after which the child can be put up for adoption.”
For much the same reasons, he says that in the case of an abandoned child, filing an FIR at the nearest police station is of utmost importance.
“When reported to police, the child comes in the loop, and this is very important to ensure that every attempt is made to trace the child back to its parents. Many people have, in good faith, kept five-year-olds in their homes, not realising that its family could actually be searching for it.” He mentions three instances in the last three months in which the parents of abandoned children were tracked back to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar by the Bal Asha Trust.
The number game
Meanwhile, says Arora, the number of babies given up for adoption has decreased in recent years.
There are many reasons for that, he says. For one, the number of pregnancies has reduced as contraception is widely available and several abortion centres have also opened up. So, he says, “The chances of a woman going full-term with a baby she doesn’t want to keep are fewer.”
But, he points out, it could also be indicative of a larger area of concern: trafficking in babies.
Mhatre agrees. With urban childlessness on the rise and long waiting lists at adoption centres, she says, “Unscrupulous elements might be taking advantage of such abandoned children and actually selling them.”
Dr Rakesh Kapoor, an advocate who deals in adoption procedures, adds, “There is a huge black market that revolves around babies. Sometimes, such unwed mothers could even get into the wrong hands — unscrupulous elements, relatives or hospital staff at private nursing homes could promise to unburden the mother and then sell the baby to touts. On the other hand, there are couples desperate for a child who are ready to pay huge sums of money to adopt one, not realising that there is a clean, legalised way to go about it.”
Kapoor notes, however, that it is important not to be judgmental about a mother who abandons her child. “If you look at it from an unwed mother’s point of view, there could be so many circumstances that prompt her to take such a drastic step, and who are we to judge if it is right or wrong? After all, she wouldn’t do it if she believed there was an alternative.”