WEST BENGAL, India – Kanon Sarkar, 27, gave birth to her second daughter in July 2014 at a nursing home in rural West Bengal, a state in eastern India.
But six hours after delivery at the home, which functions as a small health clinic, the doctor told Sarkar her baby had an unexplained heart problem and had to be taken to Kolkata, the bustling capital, for urgent treatment. The mother and child went to Kolkata as instructed, but the next day, without proper explanation, the baby was declared dead.
The staff at the hospital gave Sarkar a corpse, wrapped in white with only the eyes visible, so the family could submerge the body in a river that runs through their village, in accordance with Hindu tradition.
“I spent 15 hours with my baby … she was very beautiful. I couldn’t even imagine having such a beautiful baby,” Sarkar said at her tranquil home amid the coconut trees and birds, wiping her tears away with her scarf.
Despite a lack of evidence that medical tests had been carried out, the family “had to accept what the doctor said was the truth,” Sarkar’s husband, Ashish, said.
But when a major baby-trafficking racket was uncovered last November in North-24 Paraganas – where the family lives – Ashish Sarkar recognized the name of one of the doctors who had been arrested when he read about it in a local newspaper.
It was the same man who had delivered his baby daughter. He suspected his baby had not, in fact, died of a heart condition; he guessed she’d been trafficked for adoption and they’d put the wrong body in the river.
Those allegedly involved in the racket targeted unmarried pregnant women and poor families in West Bengal and convinced them to sell their newborns to childless couples using fake documents. In other cases, like the Sarkars’, women were told their babies had died.
According to local media reports, more than 20 people have been arrested in connection with the illegal trafficking of babies for adoption in India and overseas. Investigators rescued 13 babies who had been kidnapped from mothers who’d recently given birth.
While the discovery of the racket was shocking, it isn’t an isolated case.
West Bengal, with its porous border with Bangladesh and Nepal, records the highest number of women and children trafficked compared to other states across the country. Last year, government data indicate, 19,223 women and children were trafficked, compared with 15,448 in 2015. But the real number is unknown.
The trafficking of babies in particular raises important questions about adoption in India, and how poor, rural women are targeted to give up their babies for a pittance, and sometimes, in the most extreme cases, without their knowledge.
How Adoption Fuels Trafficking
There were 3,210 legal adoptions in India between April 2016 and March this year, and a waiting list of 15,000 couples.
Adoption experts say India’s tough adoption laws coupled with long waiting lists, corruption and red tape are fueling black market adoptions.
In late 2015, India changed its adoption rules when the Ministry of Women and Child Development brought all prospective adoptive parents and children together in an online database run by the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), a body that monitors and regulates adoptions both within India and for couples overseas wanting to adopt from there.
Under the earlier system, adoption agencies and orphanages were able to handpick parents and match them with children, which some say facilitated corruption, prejudice and trafficking.
Now the automated system matches prospective parents directly with children who live at registered adoption agencies and orphanages with the aim of making the process more transparent, and shortening the time couples have to wait.
As of May this year, prospective parents are now given one child instead of three to choose from; they have 48 hours to decide if they want the child, and if they say no three consecutive times, they are moved to the bottom of the waiting list.
The system, which also makes it easier for single and divorced people to adopt, may look good on paper, but Arun Dohle, who runs Against Child Trafficking, an NGO that investigates adoption practices and gives assistance to victims, argues that no one is working on the root cause of the problem: corruption and illegal trafficking.
Dohle goes as far as to compare India’s legal system of adoption with the black market.
In the black market, “You can buy a baby from a nursing home, you get a new birth certificate, put your name as the parent and everything is fine. You call it adoption so it’s a good thing, right?” he said.
“The legal route is the same thing. The only difference is that the shortcut [the illegal way] takes a shorter period of time and is a bit more expensive. The system doesn’t work.
“I get calls from people wanting to adopt, but they’ve been asked for bribes from agencies, even the most ethical ones,” he said.
News Deeply approached CARA with a request for a comment, but the authority did not respond by the deadline.
Under Indian law, if a family initially gives up a child, the first option must be to attempt to reunite the child with the family. But there is often no money available for families to take back children, who are too often given up because of poverty.
This puts the children in a “hyper-dangerous” situation, Dohle said, and fuels the black market.
“The economics are clear: There is a lot of money involved with giving a child into adoption,” he said.
The Struggle to Adopt Ethically
Unable to conceive and desperately wanting a child to nurture, Sahana (not her real name), 48, made the decision to adopt in 2015.
She was well aware of the dangers of illegal adoption and wanted to ensure the process was above board.
“I don’t want to have a child that has been stolen, with the mother landing up here and causing a whole lot of trauma for all of us,” she said.
Last year, through the official system, Sahana was matched with a child in a different city. But when she contacted the agency, she was told the child had already been given away. When she called the adoption authority and told them what happened, they told her that was untrue, and that the baby had died.
Shortly after, she was matched with another baby at a different adoption agency. But when she went through the legal documents, she realized some major discrepancies: The child was from a different district from the mother.
“I don’t know if the mother had given her or him up voluntarily,” she said. “There were so many unanswered questions.”
Sahana said her two bad experiences with the legal adoption route turned her off adopting, saying she was “shit scared” and “traumatized” by it all.
“I have no idea what went wrong, but both experiences were very negative,” she added.
The Search for Onya
Back in West Bengal, about an hour’s drive from the Sarkars’ home, Majeda Bibi, 34, is bathing her six-month-old son under the outdoor water pump.
Nine other children of varying ages, seven of them from her husband’s first marriage, crowd around.
A few hours after she underwent what she says was an unnecessary cesarean section last November at a nursing home, detectives stormed the building, asking questions about her baby. Without explaining what was happening, she and her baby were moved to a government hospital.
It was only when Bibi returned home with her baby that she and her husband, Abdul Satter, realized they’d narrowly avoided having their baby trafficked.
Detectives had discovered that the doctor working at the nursing home where Bibi had delivered her baby was involved with the widespread illegal trafficking racket.
The Sarkars were not so lucky.
Not long ago, Ashish Sarkar traveled to Kolkata to make a statement to the investigating agency regarding the doctor who had delivered his baby. There, he met face to face with the doctor, who is being held and is facing charges.
“He confessed to trafficking my child, but he doesn’t know where [she] is because she’s changed so many hands,” he said.
“What can we do? All our hopes are with the investigating agency.”
For now, all the Sarkars can do is wait and see if those investigating the racket will find their daughter.
In the meantime, they are planning to have another baby. But Onya, the name Kanon Sarkar gave her lost daughter, will never be replaced.