Babies, bargains and bureaucracy: the dark side of child adoption

A clandestine network of illegal child adoption has recently been uncovered in Telangana and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, leaving families shattered. With thousands fervently waiting for a chance to embrace parenthood, a dearth of children available for legal adoption has led many to resort to illicit means. While police scramble to untangle the network’s complexities with an intensive probe and several arrests, the fate of those already ensnared by the baby business hangs in the balance, writes?Lavpreet Kaur

Updated - June 07, 2024 10:36 am IST

Published - June 07, 2024 10:04 am IST

Initial investigations reveal that around 60 infants, ranging from a few days to a couple of years old, originally from Delhi and Pune, have been trafficked in the two Telugu-speaking States over the past three years. Image for representational purpose only

Initial investigations reveal that around 60 infants, ranging from a few days to a couple of years old, originally from Delhi and Pune, have been trafficked in the two Telugu-speaking States over the past three years. Image for representational purpose only | Photo Credit: AFP

April 27 was a day of celebration at a four-storey apartment in the bylanes of Boduppal, a residential locality in eastern Hyderabad. It was Dhruv’s first birthday, with no expense spared by the family, which had shelled out ?4-5 lakh to ‘get’ the boy through their go-to doctor at a nearby clinic. However, the revelry was soon to be overshadowed by a shocking revelation. Exactly 25 days later, police apprehended the doctor, Shobharani, for alleged involvement in the illegal sale of infants across Telangana and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

Dhruv’s ‘parents’, Shweta (32) and Shlok (35), had been married for 13 years but were unable to conceive. Their apartment was less than a kilometre away from Shobharani’s clinic.

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“Her offer to us for a child came at a hopeless time when the in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) procedure had gone in vain and we did not hear back on an adoption request we had filed about five years ago,” says Shweta, clutching an A-5 size photo album of Dhruv’s first birthday party. “This album was printed and delivered the day he was taken away by the police,” she adds, glancing at pictures of the 14-month-old boy dressed in various fancy outfits.

Dhruv had been sold to the couple when he was just 10 days old. Desperate to become parents, Shweta and Shlok got sucked into the widespread inter-State child selling racket, layers of which are still being peeled by Telangana police.

Shobharani, a mother of two in her late 40s, was aware of the couple’s charitable disposition, particularly their willingness to support children’s education. Leveraging this information, she suggested they make the payment strictly in cash to an ‘NGO’. She claimed that the voluntary organisation matched children from impoverished families with those who could provide them a better life.

“The day we got the call, we were asked to pick up the baby boy from a road closeby. Upon our request, she agreed to hand over the baby at her clinic after running a quick medical test,” Shweta’s brother, Sumit, says. “Shobharani said the baby’s documents, including birth certificate and Aadhaar card, will be ‘arranged’ soon and asked us to take him home. Our feeling before we had him and today is the same. We have nothing in our hands,” Sumit adds.

In another case, 11-month-old Rishika was sold to Uppal residents Mallesh (35), and Shruti (29) when she was just 60 days old. The couple, now married for 10 years, had consulted numerous fertility centres in Hyderabad and nearby Rangareddy district, but in vain. “One day, I got a call from Sampath, a staffer at the State-run Gandhi Hospital in Hyderabad. He introduced himself as a broker and said he got my number through a fertility centre I had visited. He informed me that orphans were available for adoption. He quoted ?3.5 lakh for a baby girl and ?6 lakh for a boy. My wife, who was depressed after a miscarriage, was excited and we went ahead with the adoption,” shares Mallesh.

In a few days, Sampath shared photos of the baby girl. After the ‘deal’ was sealed, Mallesh was asked to go with ?3.5 lakh to a colony in Padmarao Nagar, where Sampath lived with his family.

Mallesh was made to wait for two hours at Sampath’s house and once the baby was brought to the place, he was asked to walk with Sampath a few hundred metres away from the residence and hand over the cash.

“Within seconds of the baby being handed over, the men involved in the process dispersed. I was asked to ‘immediately leave the place with the baby’ and also pay ?20,000 extra to get a birth certificate stamped by Gandhi Hospital,” recalls Mallesh.

Nine months later, the couple has already initiated legal procedure in hopes of adopting the same child they were taking care of. Mallesh broke down into tears while frantically scrolling through his phone’s photo gallery to show how well he was raising the girl over the past nine months. “We bought an air-conditioner, a car, top quality goodies, and branded dresses and shoes for our baby. My wife and I have been unable to focus on anything since the day she was taken away,” he shares, sobbing.

Desperation, deception and loss

These are just two among many stories of couples baited into illegally buying babies. While most couples faced the heartbreak of losing their chance at parenthood, others endured even greater setbacks. Jyothi and Chandra Reddy from Madhapur in Hyderabad had told their respective families that the baby girl they paid for was their biological child. Now, they are struggling to face their families and maintain the lie after the baby, now 2.5 years old, was taken away.

This also underlines the haunting duration of the racket, which easily stretches back at least three years. The clandestine scam was recently exposed through a sting operation conducted by Manyam Sai Kumar, a journalist working with a vernacular news platform.

Initial investigations reveal that around 60 infants, ranging from a few days to a couple of years old, originally from Delhi and Pune, have been trafficked like commodities in the two Telugu-speaking States over this period. The ‘baby price’ depends on how desperate a couple are and how long they have been married without being able to conceive.

Among the children traced through the interrogation of gang members were found to be from Madhapur, Peerzadiguda, Gachibowli, and Suryapet in Telangana, and Vijayawada, Guntur, and Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh.

Over a week after the Rachakonda commissionerate in Hyderabad uncovered the massive inter-State child-selling racket, Shishu Vihar in Ameerpet remains crowded with parents seeking to see their children. The lingering question on everyone’s mind is how agents, who appeared no different from average passersby, could be part of such a dense and dark network.

So far, the authorities have rescued 15 children and are interrogating the 11 arrested, including Shobharani, in connection with the racket. Efforts are under way to trace and nab the three key suppliers emerging from the case so far – Kiran and Preethi from Pune and Kannaiah from Delhi.

Guaranteed delivery

Just like any e-commerce platform, the well-oiled network worked seamlessly to ensure delivery of the child to the ‘buyer’ in 24 to 48 hours.

Once an ‘order was placed’ by the interested person, the baby would be brought into the region, mostly by train. The couple would then be called to a specific location, often outdoors at random streets and bylanes, in the late hours.

Police say there are various possibilities when it comes to where and how these children were procured. In their confession, members of the gang claimed that they were sourcing children from poverty-stricken parents who sell their newborns for a paltry sum. However, officials have not ruled out kidnapping and smuggling of newborns from government hospitals.

Fertility centres remain the key source of customers for the racket apart from direct selling. Police have identified names of fertility centres in Vijayawada, Hyderabad and Warangal, working as a common touchpoint for the members of the racket and prospective parents. Some point to nannies (also called ayahs) in fertility homes, while others say Class IV employees, including watchmen, and people in the first-aid domain were the ones to ‘recommend’ them to an agent in the network.

Interestingly, in their pursuit of committing the ‘perfect crime’, the gang managed to maintain a non-institutionalised operation sans records of the children, a physical office, documentation or money trail. In certain instances where documents like birth certificates or Aadhaar cards were issued, they were found to be forged and fabricated.

A thick web

While a racket of this scale is being unearthed for the first time in Telangana, those involved are not new to the game. According to Medipally police inspector R. Govinda Reddy, who is also the Investigating Officer (IO) of the case, at least 4-5 cases have been filed in past years against various agents across the two Telugu-speaking States. However, investigation then was limited to individual suspects while the broader network remained hidden.

Investigation has revealed that the network extends across the country. “Each arrested agent/ peddler leads to a few sub-peddlers and so on. The arrest of the three key suppliers who are currently absconding could lead to another door for us,” Reddy explains.

Meanwhile, since news of the racket broke, Medipally police have been inundated with requests to reopen and match existing missing person complaints, particularly from the past year, with the pool of rescued children and accused gang members.

Mallesh says he was aware of this being illegal, but also that he and his wife were helpless. “I am now 35. We were asked to wait for at least seven years for adoption, that too with no guarantee. Let’s assume we get to adopt a child after seven years; I will be 42 then and retire from my job when the child is still a teenager. How am I, or any other parent for that matter, supposed to work with a system like that,” he asks.

Shweta says there is a lack of transparency and assurance at adoption centers, leaving couples hopeless and vulnerable to dubious schemes. “Moreover, there is no awareness of the legal adoption procedure except for applying online where it feels like our concerns are falling on deaf ears,” she rues.

Demand-supply gap

According to Rachakonda Police Commissioner Tarun Joshi, a long waiting time and dearth of babies for legal adoption have opened the way for such gangs to operate in the country.

To put things in perspective, the State currently has 1,816 couples waiting in line for legal adoption, while only 144 children are available in the adoption pool, 93 of whom have special needs. In the district office overseeing Hyderabad, Rangareddy, and Medchal, 836 parents’ Home Study Reports (HSR) have been approved as of June 4, although only 85 children are available for adoption, with 64 of them having special needs.

Moreover, there are almost always 10-15 children above the age of six available for immediate placement on the seven-day portal. According to data shared by the Specialised Adoption Agency of Hyderabad, the State recorded 82 adoptions in 2023, including 40 in-country and 42 inter-country. This year, so far, 30 children have been adopted, including 23 in-country and seven inter-country.

Indian couples generally hesitate to adopt children with special needs or children aged above six years, says N. Mothi, Regional Joint Director of the Women Development and Child Welfare department. “Children with mild physical and/ or mental disabilities are often adopted by inter-country parents from the US, Canada, Spain, Italy and New Zealand. Further, there are many severe cases which continue to stay back at Shishu Vihar where their medical and other needs are taken care of until, and if at all, their adoption gets through,” she explains.

As of June 2024, the adoption period can range from 3 to 4 years, says Mothi, adding that the average waiting time for a girl is 3.5 to 4 years, while for boys, it is between 4 and 4.5 years due to the dearth of boys in the adoption pool. The ideal age for parents to apply for adoption is between 35 and 45 years, she suggests.

It is noteworthy that the State department rescues an average of 10-15 children every month and facilitates the same number of adoptions.

Indian couples often waste a significant amount of time deliberating various options even after realising they cannot conceive a child, leading to delays in the adoption process, opines a senior official at the State Adoption Resource Authority. This hesitation is largely due to the social stigma associated with adoptions, the official says. As a result, ‘relative adoption’ has become common in the State of late, with at least 10 cases recorded each month. The official says there is a different procedure for such cases, allowing adoption to be completed in 2-3 months.

Meanwhile, some ‘foster parents’ have begun sending queries to apply formally, hoping to receive priority in the upcoming legal adoption process, scheduled to begin in two months.

(Some names have been changed on request)

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