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Cradle baby scheme intensifies gender discrimination, say activists

Following the alleged success of Tamil Naduís famous cradle baby scheme, the central government is planning to set up baby reception centres across the country. But, activists allege, the scheme, which was supposed to reduce female infanticide, is actually legitimising the traditional discrimination against the girl-child who ends up being a mere statistic in the governmentís record books

Exactly a year ago, the Union Ministry for Women and Child Development issued a press release stating that baby reception centres would be set up in every district of the country. It was Minister Renuka Chowdhury's dream project to combat female infanticide based on Tamil Nadu's famous cradle baby scheme.

Although there's no doubting Renuka Chowdhury's enthusiasm regarding extending the scheme to other parts of the country, with its flawed structure and implementation the move could well turn out to be catastrophic for millions of little girl-children across India.

A special report entitled 'Where Do Rejected Little Girls Go...' by Tehelka finds the cradle scheme has actually further damaged girl-children in Tamil Nadu with the state government's handling reducing the lives of the abandoned children to mere statistics in its record of success.

Tamil Nadu launched the cradle baby scheme in 1992, which means the very first children adopted under it would now be 15-16 years old. But there is no information about these children and how the scheme has benefited them. No one in the government knows what happened to them after they were handed over to adoption agencies. No records have been kept.

State Social Welfare Minister Poongothai Aladi Aruna says the government only has information about the babies until the time they were delivered to the adoption agencies."We don't have records on where the babies have gone from there. We are in the process of collecting the information (regarding their whereabouts and welfare)," she says.

According to information obtained by a NGO under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, on June 1, 2007, the government had received a total of 2,589 children. Though the scheme was launched in 1992, most arrivals occurred after 2000. About 2,495 children were received during this period -- 1,545 surrendered and 950 abandoned babies. It has been estimated that the total number may be as high as 3,000. But where are they now? And what about their parents?

Gomathi, a 23-year-old woman from Dharmapuri district (which has had the highest response to the cradle baby scheme), says:"They told me once my child was given in adoption I wouldn't be able to contact her. I consoled myself that the state would monitor the welfare of my child."

What Gomathi and the other mothers did not know was that their babies would be in the government's care for barely a couple of months before being handed over to adoption agencies. And that the link between baby and government would subsequently be broken: it's the agency that identifies adoptive parents even as the child becomes just another number in a file.

Even deaths are reported only by number; nobody even knows whether the biological parents are informed. In fact, the infant mortality rate (IMR) among cradle babies is five times higher than the state average."The IMR in Tamil Nadu is 31, but it is 162 for the cradle babies," says P Phavalam, project officer at the Madurai-based Society for Integrated Rural Development. He adds:"As on June 1, 2007, out of the 2,589 babies received under the scheme, 404 children died."

The agency, which is part of a campaign against sex-selective abortion, is against the scheme. What these poor cradle children have turned out to be is an unending supply resource for adoption agencies in the state.

Social worker Mary Robert at Peace Society, Coimbatore, says that 75% of the nearly 140 babies they had given for adoption were cradle babies."The babies come mostly from Dharmapuri," she says, adding that all but 10 were females.

Most other agencies are reticent about revealing the facts. Sheela Jayanthi, director, Karna Prayag Trust, a Chennai-based agency, says:"Whatever information you need on cradle babies, it has to come from the government." Her statement is echoed by social worker K N George of Guild of Service, who says:"We have been informed by the government not to disclose any information on this issue."

The veil of secrecy over the fate of the children only highlights the concern about their welfare. In November 2006, news about a five-year-old cradle baby in Attur, near Salem, who was tortured by her foster parents, shocked the state. The girl had been adopted from a home in Hosur. A fact-finding report by an NGO noted that she had around 300 burns and injuries all over her body.

Under pressure, the Tamil Nadu government ordered a study on the status of children put up for adoption. Its findings have not been made public.

According to the available information, by January 1, 2007, 1,472 cradle children were put up for adoption in the country, and 115 outside the country. To anti-cradle scheme activists, it is a matter of concern that 115 girl-children are growing up in an alien culture, in violation of the guidelines of the 1989 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the 1993 Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption.

"Can the government establish that no Indian parent was willing to adopt any of those 115 children," asks A Renganathan, director of the Salem-based NGO Village Reconstruction and Development Project.

In 2005, a panel including educationist S S Rajagopalan, senior advocate P V Bathavachalam and human rights activist Ossie Fernandes conducted a four-month study on the functioning of adoption agencies after the arrest of people running an adoption agency called Malaysian Social Service Society in Chennai in connection with a case relating to the kidnapping and sale of around 350 children between 1991 and 2001.

The study found that there was"big competition" among adoption agencies to get babies from the government's cradle baby scheme. It also found that agencies received hefty donations (from prospective parents) to hand in a child for adoption. The report notes:"We were told these donations are not accounted for and could range from Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh." The report criticises the government for handing cradle babies over for adoption"with no follow-up or monitoring mechanism".

Fernandes says:"The government has no moral or legal right to give away the children to adoption agencies. The government should make public what happened to the children given for adoption under the cradle baby scheme." The state government has not ventured a reply.

The proliferation of adoption agencies in Tamil Nadu is intricately linked to the cradle baby scheme. It may not be a coincidence that, between 2002 and 2006, their number doubled from 11 to 23. This was when the government revived the scheme and extended it to all districts.

The district of Dharmapuri accounts for the highest number of babies received under the scheme. The region is socially and economically backward, with a high incidence of female infanticide. The scheme was launched here in 2002. By February 27, 2008, the reception centre at the Dharmapuri government hospital had received its 1,044th baby. M Selvi, who runs the centre, says that only 41 of the 1,044 babies were male."The male children usually have some disability. A few were HIV-positive or born in an illegal relationship," she says.

The message is clear. A male baby is dumped only if it has a disability; a girl-child is dumped because of its gender. Selvi says that she counsels those who bring in children, but is careful not to force them."If we press too hard they will take the baby and abandon it somewhere, or just kill it," she says.

Salem is another district where there has been an endless supply of babies for the scheme. An official at the social welfare department said they had so far received 884 children. Each entry registering the arrival of a child is a sad reflection of entrenched social mores against female children.

Despite its backing of the scheme, the Tamil Nadu government has been stingy when it comes to allocating funding to it: according to the social welfare department's policy notes for various financial years, funding has ranged between Rs 6 lakh and Rs 12 lakh. Not only is the project run on a pittance, activists say there is no exclusive staff to man it.

"The scheme has encouraged the neglect of the girl-child. It has denied her the right to live with her family," says M Shankar, convenor of the Tamil Nadu chapter of the Campaign Against Negligence of Girl-Child. He claims it hasn't eradicated female infanticide or female foeticide either."Dharmapuri's sex ratio in the 0-6 age-group is 877 compared to the state's ratio of 939. Similarly, the female infanticide rate is 73 against the state's rate of 55," he says.

Recently, activists, under the banner of the Social Movement Against Female Infant Mortality, held a conference in Dharmapuri to suggest alternative schemes to save female babies. Speakers demanded that the government release a 'white paper', and suggested it provide more assistance to girls in the family.

For instance, the marriage assistance scheme provides Rs 15,000 to one girl in a family. If this is extended to other girls in the family, it could effect a change in attitude.

Source: Tehelka magazine, March 29, 2008