Child adoption in India - prospects and challenges

  • Feb 03 , 2017

Though conclusive studies still do not exist, it is estimated that India has over 20 million orphaned children. Given this huge number, it is surprising that the total number of adoptions in the year 2015 was as low as 2500. Archaic laws, long winded paperwork, and bureaucracy, and social taboo are some of the reasons for low adoption rates in India.

Social taboo

In India adopting a child is still seen as the last resort. Typically a couple will try all possible medical remedies before considering adopting a child. Caste prejudice still persists within broad sections of Indian society- family elders often feel anxious about the caste of the adopted child. Even when a couple decides to adopt a child, often they are seen to prefer children with fairer complexion who might ‘look like’ they come from an ‘upper caste’. Retrograde and ill-informed genetic arguments are often intermixed with archaic caste notion to come up with arguments against adoption like- ‘An adopted child wouldn’t prove to be equally loyal’ or ‘parents can feel true affection only for their biological children.’ The force of prejudice is so strong that society, in general, finds it inexplicable as to why a perfectly healthy couple might opt to adopt a child. Prospective parents are often presumed to be sexually inactive or biologically incapable of conceiving a child. At least in some quarters, there is still a stigma attached with a woman’s inability to conceive children. This dissuades at least some women from considering adopting a child as they are reluctant to fend off incessant queries from the kin. The stigma attached to a woman’s ‘barrenness’ together with the presumption that a man incapable of impregnating women is less virile makes couples less inclined to consider adopting. In most instances, if a couple finds itself incapable of conceiving, they try procedures like IVF; adoption usually come last in the list of possible remedies. Even when a couple decides to adopt a child, they are pressurised by the family to prefer a child from within the extended family as it presumed that it would be easier for him/her to acquire the family traits and culture. Given this plethora of social pressures, it is hardly surprising that the number of couples willing to adopt children is still so low in our country.

Photo Courtesy: Shai Venkatraman/IPS

Poor laws

If social stigma is a problem then the presence of archaic laws makes the situation still worse. Till 2006, adoption laws in India were governed by HAMA (Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act), 1956 and The Guardians and Wards Act, 1890. According to the provisions of these laws, only Hindus had the legal right to adopt a child whereas Muslims, Christians, and Parsis were allowed only guardianship. This implied that children adopted by non-Hindu couples had no right to inheritance and as soon as they reached the age of 21, the law treated them as individuals. HAMA, on the other hand, stipulated that no couple may adopt a child if they already had a biological child from the same sex. These are only some of the retrograde provisions of laws governing adoption. Despite a keen recognition of the inadequacy and injudiciousness of these laws, for long amendments couldn’t be carried out due to political discord. Many religious leaders and clerics were found to be keener to defend their home turf than giving primacy to the interests and welfare of orphaned children. The absurdity of labelling small children on religious lines in a country that claims to be secular wasn’t lost on anyone. Finally, in the year 2006, the government carried out a major overhaul of the adoption laws. The Juvenile Justice Act of 2000 (JJA) created a provision for Muslims, Christians, atheists to become legal adoptive parents.

Bureaucratic Hurdles

However, this legal overhaul notwithstanding, rates of adoption haven’t shown any significant improvement. According to a survey carried out by the Indian society for Assisted Reproduction (ISAR), as many as 46 per cent of couples falling in the age group of 31-40 are infertile. Further, there is evidence that despite the societal pressure outlined in the foregoing a lot many of them are willing to adopt children. However, shockingly, studies seem to suggest that there is an actual dearth of children up for adoption. An India Spend article published in March 2016 suggests that even though there are over 50,000 adoptable children in India, just about 1600 are up for adoption. And this situation appears grimmer still if we take into account the fact that during the same period as many as 7500 families had applied for adoption. The paperwork is so rigorous and long drawn that is takes several months before the prospective parents can gain custody of the adopted child. While doing away with the paperwork is probably not an option due to the fear of child trafficking and abuse, it is unfortunate that many a prospective parent are unable to adopt children due to delays.

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A New Development

In a positive development, in September 2015, Maneka Gandhi, India’s Minister for Women and Child Development changed rules to make CARA (Child Adoption Resource Authority) more accountable. Now the process of adoption has been centralised and consequently, prospective parents are required to register with the CARA that maintains an online database on children awaiting adoption.  Further, the government has set a target of 15,000 children adopted every year for CARA. There has also been a crackdown on illegal and unauthorised agencies to reduce the incidence of trafficking. Overall, efforts are being made to make the process as transparent and credible as possible. Flavia Agnes, a lawyer based in Mumbai stresses the importance of transparency and state control. Being acquainted with trafficking, she argues that many child adoption agencies had been acting like rackets and some among them were engaged in what effectively seemed like selling children to the highest bidders.

Is the situation likely to improve?

However, in a country where access to computers is still so limited, making the whole process online creates the danger of blocking out a very big section of families willing to adopt children. While many prospective parents, used to working online, find the system user-friendly and easy to navigate, those based in smaller cities and rural areas find the task daunting. CARA’s secretary Veerendra Mishra defends the system arguing that parents really serious about adopting a child can always seek help. “The government’s National Informatics Centre can help people with the filling of online forms. And parents can always call the CARA helpline where we have three tele-counsellors and a battery of experts to take parents through the entire process,” said Mishra, claiming that CARA gets at least 250-300 emails from parents every day.

Despite this, parents hailing from rural areas complain that the problem doesn’t lie merely in the fact that the process of registration has been made online. There’s the addition challenge that the entire process of registration is carried out in English now.

Yet other sets of critics raise questions over the ‘ethics’ of choosing children based on photographs uploaded in the database. They are skeptical about what they perceive to be disturbingly akin to ‘baby shopping’. The Federation of Adoption Agencies based in Maharashtra has even moved the court to challenge the new system. Maneka Gandhi on her part hasn’t shied away from this criticism and she has herself compared the process of child adoption to online dating. Defenders point out that insofar as ‘ethics’ of adoption are concerned, selecting children through pictures isn’t so much different from ‘examining’ them physically at an orphanage.

Photo Courtesy: Catalysts For Social Action

Which child is adoptable?

The national online database of adoptable children, despite the problems outlined above, does seem to have introduced a measure of transparency. But there is still no respite for children who might have been abandoned but are deemed unadoptable. Most of these children haven’t seen their parents for years; some are living in orphanages because their parents are in jail but they cannot be adopted as their biological parents are still alive.

In conclusion, one could say that we have still got a long way to go towards setting up a credible, systematic and foolproof system of child adoption in the country. Throwing caution to the wind is not advisable as child trafficking is a bitter reality, however, every effort should be made to reduce red-tapism and paperwork. Fighting social prejudices is a long drawn battle that would only be one through decades of social movements and consciousness-raising programs.