The £18 babies
The £18 babies
By Gregory Katz
Published: June 18 2004 13:19 | Last Updated: June 18 2004 13:19
The infants of southern India havea price on their heads, with baby brokers
paying poor parents as little as 1,500 rupees for their children. The scandal
has halted overseas adoptions and pitted westerners desperate for a child
against Indians who see the trade as a stain on their nation.
Chandri Mudavath, of the deeply impoverished Lambada tribe in southern India,
is not proud of what she did. Nor is she ashamed. She already had six daughters
when she gave birth to another little girl five years ago. She had no realistic
hope of being able to raise the child, send her to school, and come up with the
dowry needed to find her a husband. So she gave the infant away to a
clandestine baby broker who promised that the girl would have a chance at a
better life. In exchange, she says, her husband received a few hundred rupees.
"The people who came to take away the child said, 'How are you going to feed
this daughter? You're going to make her work. When we take her we'll educate
her and give her a good life and she'll get a good job,'" says Mudavath, who
still wears the traditional mirrored blouses and intricate jewellery fashioned
from two-rupee coins favoured by Lambada women. "I was sad, but I thought she
would have a good life. I was not happy exactly but that's how I consoled
myself. It doesn't really matter where she is now. As long as she's not with me
it doesn't matter where she is living. I only hope she is getting a good life."
The outside world has largely forgotten about the 130 or so Lambada people in
Bodagutta, a tiny hamlet in the hot, dusty state of Andhra Pradesh. The
families here are on the far fringes of India's economic revival. They are so
poor that they can barely send their children to school to learn to read. There
are no doctors, no medicines or contraceptives, no stores, no paved roads,
precious little water, and the electricity works sporadically when it works at
all. Few visitors arrive, and fewer still come back for a second glance. But
there is one thing the outside world wants from the Lambadas - their babies.
The Lambadas' healthy, pretty, curly-haired, light-skinned babies are in
The Lambada villages are at the centre of an unfolding baby trafficking scandal
that has halted international adoptions from Andhra Pradesh, in the south east
of India, and brought heartbreak to dozens of would-be parents in America and
Europe. The adoptions were stopped after Indian prosecutors and social
activists charged that children from tribal villages were being bought from
their parents for a pittance and sold to wealthy foreigners for exorbitant
sums. They believe the American parents are exploiters prone to abusing adopted
children; the Americans say international adoption helps everyone - they get a
chance to have a child, the child gets a stable, loving home, and the system
provides a small escape valve that lets some of the steam out of India's
crushing burden of overpopulation.
At the moment the activists who view international adoption as a stain on
India's national honour have the upper hand. While criminal charges are being
heard in slow-paced Indian courts, the children - including many who had
already been assigned to American couples - are languishing in Indian
orphanages instead of joining their would-be parents in the US.
The trade in babies can be traced largely to social changes stemming from the
Lambadas' increasing contact with the outside world. For centuries, the
Lambadas treasured their girl children, but in the past decade girls have
become a financial burden. Before, a girl's family was able to find her a
husband without having to raise a huge sum, either in cash or jewellery. But as
mainstream Indian culture seeped into Lambada settlements, brought back by
teenage boys who had been educated in towns and cities, the Indian custom of
paying dowry took hold.
For a family with several daughters, the need to raise dowry money poses a
crushing financial burden. Some go into substantial debt that will burden them
for the rest of their lives; others succumb to the blandishments of
slick-talking brokers who offer to take girl children off their hands. They
typically promise that the parents will be able to visit their child after they
give them up; typically this is an outright lie.
Those who might judge Mudavath to be cruel and unfeeling for giving up her
infant should consider that she makes the equivalent of about 55 pence a day
carrying bricks at a construction site, while the cost of a dowry has risen to
more than ú800 in most cases. What chance did she have of raising more than
ú5,500 to find husbands for all seven girls and still have money for life's
necessities, such as food and clothes?
"It was a joint decision to give the baby away," says her husband, Chandar
Mudavath, sounding beaten. "What can we do? There is no point in feeling sad
about it. There are so many daughters I have to support and make sure that they
Freelance writer Sharon Van Epps and her husband, accountant John Clements,
were living in a comfortable suburb outside Washington DC several years ago
when they decided to adopt a child from India. They were eager to start a
family, and frustrated by difficulties conceiving. Like more and more
Americans, they turned abroad for a child - the number of US citizens adopting
overseas each year has gone from about 8,000 to more than 21,000 in just a
decade, according to government figures, and India has become a popular source,
although the number adopting from China and Russia is far higher.
To adopt overseas involves a tremendous amount of paperwork, and Van Epps and
Clements enlisted the help of a reputable US adoption agency to help. They did
everything right. A home study was conducted by a licensed social worker to
determine if they were fit to be parents, there was a detailed check of their
health and finances, an investigation into their police records - designed to
weed out potential paedophiles - and the collection of dozens of documents
about their lives. They put money aside to pay for the entire process, which
usually costs about $20,000 (ú11,000), and as it sailed along they imagined the
day when they would return home with a child in their arms.
Then came the happy news that they had been matched with Haseena, a little girl
with a slight foot deformity living at the well-known Tender Loving Care
orphanage in Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh. All the government
approvals were in place. It was a moment of profound joy.
But their adoption would not be so simple. They had the misfortune to be
adopting in southern India in the summer of 2001, just as the baby trafficking
scandal was about to hit. When prosecutors moved against a number of orphanages
in Hyderabad, and accused their directors of being in league with brokers who
were obtaining babies improperly from the Lambada villages, virtually every
international adoption in the region came under a cloud.
At first the adoption of Haseena was unaffected by the turmoil. The Indian
government did not intervene to prevent it from going forward. There was no
evidence whatsoever that the little girl had been the victim of any type of
skullduggery, and no Indian family expressed an interest in adopting her,
perhaps in part because of her foot problem. But the situation changed when
several Indian activists launched a court effort to block virtually all foreign
adoptions. The activists, who contended that the entire adoption system was
corrupt, were given legal standing by the courts, which prompted the government
to take a fresh look at the cases that were in progress. As a result, the
Indian government formally objected to the adoption of Haseena in February
The decision was an unmitigated disaster for Van Epps and Clements. The simple
course would have been to drop the matter and try to adopt in another country
untouched by scandal. But the couple had formed a close attachment to the
little girl from the photos they had been sent. They already thought of Haseena
as their daughter, even though they had not yet met the girl, and they were
unwilling to abandon their quest to bring her home. Instead, they flew to
Hyderabad to fight for her in the Indian courts.
When Van Epps finally met Haseena at the orphanage she felt, she says, a deep
connection to the girl, and that their souls had merged. Her husband had to
leave after 10 days to return to his job in the US, but Van Epps stayed with
Haseena, visiting her every day and trying to push the adoption through the
"I felt I couldn't leave Haseena," she says. The little girl started to call
her "Mommy" when she arrived at the orphanage each day for a visit that would
last several hours. Orphanage workers observed a dramatic change in the child's
demeanor. She seemed to blossom with the attention and love coming her way.
But Van Epps suffered a series of setbacks in court. Haseena was eventually
removed from the orphanage, to another one where Van Epps's access was
restricted, and then placed with an Indian family. After nearly 18 months in
Hyderabad, Van Epps returned home without the child. She still has some hopes
that an appeal might succeed, but is troubled by the thought that Haseena may
feel abandoned by her. She blames the prosecutors and activists in Hyderabad
for ruining Haseena's life - and her own.
The Hyderabad scandal that has cost Van Epps and many other would-be parents a
chance to adopt in Andhra Pradesh began with a chance phone call made seven
years ago to Jamuna Paruchuri, a community organiser in Hyderabad with
extensive contacts in the Lambada tribal region. The call came from a tribal
man who warned her that two young girls would be put to death by their parents
because they couldn't afford to raise the infants. The girls would surely die
unless someone intervened immediately, she was told. Paruchuri says she
enlisted the help of Sister Teresa Marie, who runs the Tender Loving Care
orphanage, and rushed to the remote village only to find that the villagers
expected to be paid for the children.
Paruchuri says she told the Lambadas that she was unwilling to buy children and
went home after warning that there would be an immediate police inquiry if the
girls were harmed. But the babies turned up a few days later in Sister Teresa
Marie's orphanage, and Paruchuri claims that she paid for them, then put them
up for international adoption and made a profit on the transaction -
allegations Sister Teresa Marie denies and that have never been proved.
Paruchuri was outraged, and launched an investigation into the adoption
business that is still reverberating today.
She and a colleague, Rukmini Roo, gathered information about baby trafficking,
then wrote to state government officials demanding an inquiry into the trade.
They claimed that the local orphanages were making large sums of money by
surreptitiously purchasing babies from tribal families and then charging
westerners huge sums for the children.
"The mother gets nothing," says Roo. "She gets the heartache of the loss of the
baby. The husband takes the money. The husband would get 1,500 to 3,000 rupees
[ú18 to ú36], enough for maybe three goats. The local worker gets maybe 100,
150 rupees to transport the baby. The tout, the middleman, gets 18,000 rupees
[ú220] a month, plus commission. And the agencies are getting $20,000 to
$50,000 [ú11,000 to ú27,000] per child in US dollars. This is a system where
very rich Americans get exactly what they want and a lot of people make money
along the way, but the woman who produces the child gets nothing. A poor woman
in this society should have more choices than to kill or sell her child."
State officials agreed and launched their own investigation, which led to the
police raids and the current shutdown of the adoption system. Shalini Misra,
director of the Women and Child Welfare Department in Andhra Pradesh at the
time, says the inquiry established a definite link between baby trafficking and
international adoption. She characterises the adoption agencies as acting as a
law unto themselves.
Some agencies, she says, kept the children in filthy, overcrowded rooms that
were off-limits to foreigners and, when they died, buried them in their own
back yards without any paperwork.
She claims that traffickers in league with the agencies sometimes kidnapped
children from their parents so they could be sold to foreigners for outlandish
prices. And Misra suspects the foreign couples who adopted these children of
hiding their true motives for adoption.
No one can convince her that Americans were motivated by love and altruism when
they came to Hyderabad to adopt children with problems. She believes the true
explanation may be more sinister.
"I have never come across an American family that was open about reasons for
adopting," she says. "Some said they could not have their own babies and we
said okay and let them adopt, but others had four biological children and had
no jobs and no income and wanted to add one more. I said, 'Why?' It was not
very convincing. If you are lesbian, why do you want to adopt a baby? No one
could tell me.
We don't have information on how Indian children are treated abroad after
adoption. People have doubts. Why do families ask for a physically handicapped
child? Or a mentally retarded child? Why do they want these children? We don't
The crackdown launched by Misra on the orphanages has received support from the
Hyderabad newspapers and radio stations, and judges have frequently granted
community activists legal standing to challenge international adoptions.
Gita Ramaswamy, an outspoken union organiser whose goal is to close the entire
Indian adoption process to foreigners within two years, now leads the
anti-adoption movement in Andhra Pradesh. She has proved adroit at public
relations, her public profile soaring as she successfully frames the argument
in nationalistic terms.
In her view, it is folly to think that an Indian child - even one caught in
numbing poverty - would be better off with an American family, despite the
material advantages available in the US.
The prospect of strong schools, good healthcare and a new, committed family
does not offset the loss of national cultural identity, she says, adding that
an increasing number of Indian families is coming forward to adopt orphans.
Ramaswamy also hints at the religious conflict that some American parents
believe is at the heart of the dispute, complaining that many Americans who
come to India to adopt do so because they believe that they can save a Hindu
child by raising it in a Christian home.
Her chief complaint is that the adoption process has created a demand for
Indian babies that has turned infants into objects that can be bought and sold,
to the degradation of all parties.
"It's basically an industry and the commodity is babies," she says. "It doesn't
have to be handing over money for a baby.
It can be cloaked in a number of ways. One is to make a 'donation' to a
building fund for the orphanage. But if you don't make the donation, you don't
get the baby. I have a big problem with that."
As a result of the success of the anti-adoption movement, a 10-year-old orphan
named Satish is still living at the Tender Loving Care orphanage in Hyderabad.
He is the oldest child at the facility, which is designed for younger children,
and it appears unlikely he will be leaving soon.
His age and his physical problems - epilepsy, a damaged left arm, and a bad
limp - seemingly make him unattractive to some Indian couples looking to adopt.
And the block on overseas adoptions has stymied Steve and Beverley Gilbert, an
American couple living in Seattle who were in the process of adopting him and
bringing him to the US.
The Gilberts, who already have two adopted children from India, believed that
Satish would respond well to western medical treatment and be able to overcome
most of his ailments. They sent him photographs of themselves and their adopted
daughters - telling the boy he would soon be part of the family - only to have
the whole process halted. They are pursuing the case through the Indian courts,
thus far without success.
As the oldest boy at the orphanage, Satish has taken on something of a
supervisory role, often looking after the younger children when they play
outside. He can be extroverted and joyous at times, but workers report that he
has become withdrawn as the case drags on. He rarely looks at the photographs
of the Gilberts nowadays.
Judi Kloper, who, as India co-ordinator for the Journeys of the Heart adoption
agency in Oregon, helped to arrange the Gilberts' adoption of Satish, is
furious at the interminable delay. She says Satish desperately needs medical
treatment - in part because there are fears he may have a more serious
underlying disease - but is instead being allowed to deteriorate.
He is losing precious time that can never be recovered, she says. And Kloper
points out that Indian adoption authorities investigated the circumstances of
Satish's presence at the Tender Loving Care orphanage, and the status of the
other children there, to determine that they were legitimate orphans before
clearing them for international adoption. To punish the children by wrongly
linking them to baby trafficking is cruel and absurd, she argues.
"Satish used to point at the pictures and say, 'Mommy, Daddy', but now he's
listless," Kloper says. "It's difficult for him emotionally, and it's difficult
for him medically because he needs treatment.
There are no Indians lining up to adopt older children, or handicapped kids,
and for her to stand in the way of a kid who has been legally cleared for
overseas adoption is just plain wrong. This has dragged on for years, and Gita
and her colleagues have denied Satish and many other children a life with a
Gregory Katz is an American freelance writer based in London.