Recent media reports cite the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) describing the state of affairs at “Apna Ghar”, a shelter home in Rohtak, Haryana, as “sickening” and “shocking”. Sexual abuse and even forced abortion were apparently common in the shelter home. This depressing state of affairs is not uncommon across orphanages in India. In 2009 the Times of India reported that physical abuse of children had been rife in Delhi’s Arya orphanage. Indeed a search of news stories on this issue comes up with wrenching accounts of how the most vulnerable group in society is treated by its nominal caregivers and protectors.
Expectedly, there are a host of laws, commissions and agencies designed to protect orphans, abandoned and street children. The Juvenile Justice (Care & Protection of Children) Act was passed in 2000. Adoption centres are supposed to register under this act, but most do not and operate illegally, with the high transaction costs of compliance with yet another part of the regulatory state an undoubted barrier. Under the Commission for Protection of Child Rights Act (CPCRA), 2005, eight states (Delhi, Goa, Sikkim, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Assam) have set up commissions to protect child rights. Unsurprisingly, protecting children does not appear to be the only criteria for appointment to these bodies. Recently commenting on the molestation of three minor girls of a government-aided orphanage, a member of the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights admonished the media for blowing it out of proportion since the issue was “not as serious a crime as murder”.
In 2009-10 the Ministry of Women and Child Development introduced the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), aimed at children in need of care and protection. Under this scheme financial assistance is provided to states for children’s homes, adoption agencies and shelters for children in need of care and protection. A new autonomous body under the Ministry of Women & Child Development – Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) – was created to regulate in-country and inter-country adoptions with elaborate guidelines for declaring a child legally free for adoption, detailed home study reports to assess the suitability of parents to adopt, a final adoption order passed by a competent court, and post-adoption follow-up by adoption agencies for period of two years after adoption. For an overseas family seeing to adopt from India, following these guidelines scrupulously would result in financial costs between $50,000-100,000. The most recent guidelines also give greater priority to domestic adoption with the ratio for in-country vis-à-vis inter-country adoption made 80:20 (in place of the earlier 50:50).
Given the sheer scale of the problem (rough estimates of street children alone in India exceed half a million), it is an ethical puzzle is why India has been so reluctant to facilitate international adoption from the country. Between 2007 and 2010 there were a total of 2,850 inter-country adoptions from India – averaging just over 700 a year, and just over a fifth of all adoptions in India over the same period (12,841). In 2011, there were just 226 adoptions by US-based families from India. International adoptions from most East Asian countries (China, South Korea and Vietnam) are far greater than from India – and even a cursory glance at human development indicators for children would indicate that this is not because these countries care less about their children than India does.
Is there any doubt that the life chances of an orphaned or abandoned Indian child are likely to be better with an adoptive family, at least if living in an OECD country, rather than in an orphanage or living on the street in India? Indeed, from a long-term perspective, if international migration and a growing diaspora are good for India, the case is even stronger – since, over time many of these children are likely to grow up to be adults with emotional links to the country of their birth. Consequently, it is clear that greater international adoption from India is in the interests not just of orphaned children but also of the country, if indeed credible opportunities for adoption are available in developed countries.
In recent years, there is growing anecdotal evidence of significant interest in pursuing adoption from India both among prospective parents in developed countries more generally, as well as prospective parents of Indian origin in these countries. Despite reasons to believe that this trend will continue to rise, and the fact that international adoption represents a significant instrument by which India can put into practice a commitment to alleviating the lives of thousands more orphaned children, it is puzzling that strong domestic barriers to international adoption remain in place in India and as a result adoption rates from India continue to be low.
There are several potential explanations for this state of affairs. There is a belief in some circles that allowing more liberal adoption would result in greater child trafficking, with unscrupulous agents buying children from poor parents and selling them to equally unscrupulous adoption agencies. Others worry about possible religious conversions. Government policies regarding international adoption have also put up substantial barriers partly arising from India being a signatory of the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-country Adoption of 1993, which states that “to prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children each state should take, as a matter of priority, appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin.” That’s all well and good. The higher the barriers, the fewer failures in inter-country adoptions. But that also means far fewer adoptions – with the children languishing in abusive homes with grim life chances.
It is this counterfactual – what happens to the thousands of children who will not get adopted because of the labyrinth of procedures – that is rarely discussed. While the children can be protected from the evils of the “foreign hand” (even if our prime minister cannot), how much do we know (or want to) about the enemy within?
The writer is at the University of Pennsylvania