Black-Market Baby Trade Flourishes in India After Adoption Law Reform

The recent uncovering of a major baby-trafficking racket in eastern India has brought the issue of Indian adoption into the spotlight. Experts say tough laws and long waits to adopt often mean prospective parents turn to the illegal trade without even realizing it.

(photo-Majeda Bibi narrowly escaped losing her son to trafficking after undergoing what she says was an unnecessary cesarean section. News Deeply Contributor )

WEST BENGAL, INDIA – Kanon Sarkar, 27, gave birth to her second daughter in July 2014 at a nursing home in rural West Bengal, a state in eastern India.

But six hours after delivery at the home, which functions as a small health clinic, the doctor told Sarkar her baby had an unexplained heart problem and had to be taken to Kolkata, the bustling capital, for urgent treatment. The mother and child went to Kolkata as instructed, but the next day, without proper explanation, the baby was declared dead.

The staff at the hospital gave Sarkar a corpse, wrapped in white with only the eyes visible, so the family could submerge the body in a river that runs through their village, in accordance with Hindu tradition.

“I spent 15 hours with my baby … she was very beautiful. I couldn’t even imagine having such a beautiful baby,” Sarkar said at her tranquil home amid the coconut trees and birds, wiping her tears away with her scarf.

Despite a lack of evidence that medical tests had been carried out, the family “had to accept what the doctor said was the truth,” Sarkar’s husband, Ashish, said.

But when a major baby-trafficking racket was uncovered last November in North-24 Paraganas – where the family lives – Ashish Sarkar recognized the name of one of the doctors who had been arrested when he read about it in a local newspaper.

It was the same man who had delivered his baby daughter. He suspected his baby had not, in fact, died of a heart condition; he guessed she’d been trafficked for adoption and they’d put the wrong body in the river.

Those allegedly involved in the racket targeted unmarried pregnant women and poor families in West Bengal and convinced them to sell their newborns to childless couples using fake documents. In other cases, like the Sarkars’, women were told their babies had died.

According to local media reports, more than 20 people have been arrested in connection with the illegal trafficking of babies for adoption in India and overseas. Investigators rescued 13 babies who had been kidnapped from mothers who’d recently given birth.

While the discovery of the racket was shocking, it isn’t an isolated case.

West Bengal, with its porous border with Bangladesh and Nepal, records the highest number of women and children trafficked compared to other states across the country. Last year, government data indicate, 19,223 women and children were trafficked, compared with 15,448 in 2015. But the real number is unknown.

The trafficking of babies in particular raises important questions about adoption in India, and how poor, rural women are targeted to give up their babies for a pittance, and sometimes, in the most extreme cases, without their knowledge.

How Adoption Fuels Trafficking

There were 3,210 legal adoptions in India between April 2016 and March this year, and a waiting list of 15,000 couples.

These figures occur against a backdrop of approximately 50,000 orphans across India, according to NGOs, and about 30 million infertile couples.

Adoption experts say India’s tough adoption laws coupled with long waiting lists, corruption and red tape are fueling black market adoptions.

In late 2015, India changed its adoption rules when the Ministry of Women and Child Development brought all prospective adoptive parents and children together in an online database run by the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), a body that monitors and regulates adoptions both within India and for couples overseas wanting to adopt from there.

Under the earlier system, adoption agencies and orphanages were able to handpick parents and match them with children, which some say facilitated corruption, prejudice and trafficking.

Now the automated system matches prospective parents directly with children who live at registered adoption agencies and orphanages with the aim of making the process more transparent, and shortening the time couples have to wait.

“You can buy a baby from a nursing home, you get a new birth certificate, put your name as the parent and everything is fine. You call it adoption so it’s a good thing, right?”

As of May this year, prospective parents are now given one child instead of three to choose from; they have 48 hours to decide if they want the child, and if they say no three consecutive times, they are moved to the bottom of the waiting list.

The system, which also makes it easier for single and divorced people to adopt, may look good on paper, but Arun Dohle, who runs Against Child Trafficking, an NGO that investigates adoption practices and gives assistance to victims, argues that no one is working on the root cause of the problem: corruption and illegal trafficking.