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One, four, 54, 280? How many babies do the Missionaries of Charity stand accused of selling? (Arunabh Saikia in Scroll.in)
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2018-07-24 23:02:10 UTC
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One, four, 54, 280? How many babies do the Missionaries of
Charity stand accused of selling?

Jharkhand police's case against
the charity has sparked a
political controversy in the
state, with Christian groups
alleging a media trial.

by Arunabh Saikia
Published Jul 23, 2018 · 09:00 am

PHOTO: A shelter home on the outskirts of Ranchi, Jharkhand |
Manob Chowdhury

Budhini was a little over a month old when her
father, Bishram Soy, brought her to Ranchi on June
27. Soy's wife, Salomi, had bled to death while
delivering Budhini. Exactly a week later, their
elder daughter, underweight and persistently ill
since her birth, died too. Soy, a marginal tribal
farmer in Jharkhand's Khunti district, realised it
was beyond him to take care of another sick child
-- Budhini had been plagued by acute bronchitis
ever since she was born. He had heard about the
Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, a children's home run by the
Missionaries of Charity, an organisation founded by
Mother Teresa, which took care of orphans and other
deserted children, and decided to leave Budhini in
its care.

The Nirmala Shishu Bhavan was home to 21 other children -- all
less than two years old. Twenty of them, like Budhini, were
single-parent children whose mothers had died during
child-delivery. One child's mother, according to the records,
was terminally ill.

However, days after Budhini arrived, on July 6, Ranchi's
child welfare committee shifted all 22 infants out to another
shelter home. Established under India's Juvenile Justice Act,
district child welfare committees are custodians of
vulnerable children in need of care and protection from the
state.

The decision to move the 22 infants was triggered by a
scandal that has made headlines around the world: Ranchi's
child welfare committee alleged that employees of Nirmal
Hriday, another shelter run by the Missionaries of Charity in
the city, were "selling babies".

A shelter home for unmarried pregnant women, Nirmal Hriday
assisted them towards safe institutional child-delivery.
Until 2015, it also acted like an adoption home: once a baby
was born in its care, if the biological parents were
unwilling to take responsibility, it registered the newborn
with the child welfare committee, as mandated by the law, and
then placed it for adoption.

But this changed in 2015, when India framed new
adoption rules. Aimed at introducing transparency
in adoption, the new rules require prospective
adoptive parents to register on a centralised
online government database, which connects them
directly to children in adoption centres registered
on the network. Missionaries of Charity refused to
be part of the network and closed down all its
adoption agencies in the country, on grounds that a
freshly introduced provision to allow single-parent
adoptions went against its religious beliefs. In
short: any adoption through the Missionaries of
Charity now is a punishable offence and amounts to
human trafficking. The homes run by the charity
must surrender the newborn children in their care
to the child welfare committee, which will decide
where to place them.

But Ranchi's child welfare committee alleges Nirmal Hriday
failed to inform it about children born under its care on
several occasions. It claims to have scanned the records of
the home and found 54 of out 122 children born under its
aegis since 2016 were now "untraceable".

After the child welfare committee filed a complaint against
Nirmal Hriday, the police registered a first information
report on July 3 and arrested an employee of the home, Anima
Indwar. In a written statement to the police, Indwar admitted
to giving away three newborns in exchange for money, and
detailed a fourth transaction that she was aware of, but not
involved in. She also claimed that Sister Concilia, the nun
supervising the unit of unwed pregnant women at the home, was
an accomplice. Soon, a video was leaked in which the nun --
now in police custody -- is seen confessing her involvement to
an unseen policeman.

"You wait and watch," said the committee's chairperson Rupa
Verma in an interview in her office in Ranchi. "We are doing
an investigation now, when the results come out, more
skeletons will come tumbling out of their closet."

Earlier, several local dailies had reported that as
many as 280 children had been found to have been
sold off by the charity between 2015 and 2018. The
police had clarified that there was no basis to
these numbers.

A senior police official of the state told
Scroll.in that the police investigations were
limited to one case involving four newborns, not
even 54 children, which he said the child welfare
committee was examining. But he added he had a
"feeling that it is not an isolated case".

An official statement by the Missionaries of Charity
maintained that there was no institutional involvement in the
case. It condemned "individual actions which have nothing to
do with the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity". An
employee entrusted to surrender children to the child welfare
committee had failed to do so, the statement said. The
employee's action, the statement affirmed, was unknown to the
nuns at its home.

Jharkhand is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Christian groups have alleged that a media trial,
aided by selective leaks, was being orchestrated by
the state government to discredit the Christian
community on the basis of what they insist is an
isolated incident. These tensions are not new:
Hindutva groups have long sparred with Christian
missionaries in the country's tribal areas like
Jharkhand.

The turn of events has left Bishram Soy, the tribal farmer
from Khunti, distraught. He insists that his child was well
taken care of at her previous home. By way of proof, he said
that after Budhini was shifted to the new shelter, she fell
sick immediately and had to be hospitalised . "She has no
mother, I have no money to take care of her, I want her to be
shifted back to where I put her," said Soy.

It is unlikely that Soy's wish will be fulfilled anytime
soon.

PHOTO: The Ranchi Child Welfare Committee conducted raids on
Nirmal Hriday in Ranchi after an employee confessed to
selling children born under the aegis of the home. Photo:
Manob Chowdhury

A chance discovery

The police case diary suggests that the child welfare
committee stumbled upon the alleged "racket" by chance: a
couple from Uttar Pradesh, Saurav Kumar Agarwal and Priti
Agarwal, had approached them on July 3 complaining that a
child they had adopted on May 14 had been forcibly taken away
from them by a woman called Anima Indwar who claimed to work
at Nirmal Hriday.

The couple said they had been put in touch with Indwar by
another woman, Madhu Devi, who was a domestic worker at
Priti's brother's home in Ranchi. Devi, according to the case
diary, also worked in the district hospital in Ranchi as a
part-time worker.

Surender Kumar Gupta, Priti's brother, backed up the couple's
claim. "I had told Madhu that my sister is looking for a baby
as they could not have a child of their own," said Gupta.

Indwar's acquaintance with Devi, according to the police,
drew from the former's frequent visits to the hospital,
accompanying pregnant women from Nirmal Hriday.

The couple's statement to the police says that they paid Rs
1.2 lakh to Indwar for the child who was born on May 1.

"They had paid the money to Anima [Indwar], adopted the child
in May, and taken her to their home in UP and had even
organised a big party to announce the news," said Gupta. "So,
you can imagine what a big embarrassment it is for them now."

What went wrong then? According to Gupta, Indwar came to his
home on June 30, asking him to call the couple up
immediately. "She said the child had to be produced in the
court for some verification," he said.

The Agarwals arrived the next day with the child. Indwar took
away the child, Gupta claimed, promising them that she would
return her after the formalities were over. "But she never
came back, and instead made them run around from one place to
another," he said.

When all their attempts to retrieve the child failed, they
approached the child welfare committee, said Gupta. The
family was not aware that Indian laws prohibited prospective
adoptive parents from paying for a child, he insisted.
Following the Agarwals' complaint, Verma, the committee's
chairperson said that she immediately summoned Indwar to her
office. She claimed the woman owned up to not only taking
money from the Agarwals in exchange of a child, but also
being involved in two other transactions, while revealing a
fourth transaction which she did not participate in.

But what made Indwar disappear with the child? She
had, after all, by her own admission, received the
money and the child had been taken away to Uttar
Pradesh without any suspicions being raised.

According to Verma, a "routine visit" to Nirmal
Hriday by a district social welfare department team
on June 30 had alerted her. "There was some
mismatch in their records, so the inspecting team
had seized their record," said Verma. "She must
have thought she was going to get exposed."

A senior police officer, however, suggested that the visit
may not have been routine. "There were some inputs that
certain norms were not being followed at some places," the
police officer said.

Politics and plants

The allegations against Missionaries of Charity have created
ripples in the state already roiled by tensions between
Hindutva groups and the Christian community. Christian groups
point out that media reports that appeared in the wake of the
incident have exaggerated the scale of the allegations
against the Missionaries of Charity.

A reporter from a daily published out of Ranchi
said spurious information was being leaked to the
local press by a certain section of the police and
the district child welfare committee to portray the
Catholic charity in a bad light. The video of the
nun purportedly confessing had also been passed on
to the media by members of the child welfare
committee, said another journalist, who was one of
the first to report the development.

The secretary general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of
India, Theodore Mascarenhas, who had flown down to Ranchi in
the wake of the allegations, conceded that "what happened
should not have happened". But he insisted Indwar had acted
of her own volition. When it was pointed out that a nun from
Nirmal Hriday had been captured on video confessing to her
involvement, Mascarenhas said the video lacked context.

"How could the police leak a video like that to the media, it
is criminal," Mascarenhas argued. "Let them trace out the
money trail. By Anima's own admission, no sister ever took
any money. We are open to investigations but what is
happening is a media trial intended to destroy the
credibility of an entire institution on the basis of one
incident."

Asked about the child welfare committee's contention that the
charity failed to register 54 newborns as mandated by the
law, Mascarenhas said: "Let them prove it."

RK Mallick, additional director general
(operations) of Jharkhand police, defended his
force. "We have not acted under political
pressure," he said. "The Juvenile Justice Act has
been violated and since we have a confession that a
child was sold for money, we have lodged a case of
human trafficking against specific persons. The
police have not targeted any institution."

Ratan Tirkey, a member of Jharkhand's Tribal Advisory
Council, who led a fact-finding mission on the matter,
conceded that some money had indeed changed hands. However,
it was, he said, an exaggeration that a "racket" was
operating. "It is a charity, people give donations, it is not
always a commercial transaction," he said. "I admit there was
a mistake but you are blaming not just the organisation, but
the church and the community too."

PHOTO: Former chief minister Babulal Marandi visited Nirmal
Hriday in the wake of the allegations against it. (Photo
credit: Manob Chowdhury).

Baby-selling or innocuous arrangements?

Among the other three families mentioned by Indwar
in her statement to the police, at least one has
unequivocally rejected the contention that there
was any money involved -- the family of Theordore
Kero, a former Congress legislator.

According to Kero, a relative of his was informally
associated with the Missionaries of Charity and would make
frequent visits to Nirmal Hriday. "There she got in touch
with the aunt of a girl who was pregnant," he claimed. "She
was 16 years old and my daughter-in-law can't have children
biologically, so all of it was mutually decided, there's no
question of money."

Upendra Kumar, an employee at the Ranchi Water Board, and his
wife were also mentioned in Indwar's confession. Kumar, who
has been married for 28 years, said his wife had established
contact with Indwar without his knowledge. "We used to take
care of my brother's daughter, but she died when a gas
cylinder burst at our home, and my wife really wanted a
child," he said. Kumar said he was not certain if his wife
had paid any money to Indwar as alleged.

Both Kumar and Kero claimed they had been victims of
misreporting. After Indwar's confession was made public, they
claimed they had voluntarily surrendered their adopted
children to the child welfare committee, contrary to media
reports that quoted police officials as saying the children
were recovered during raids by the police.

"The administration planted news that Rs 50,000 was recovered
from my home and it was meant to pay for the child, but
that's patently false," Kero claimed. "Even Anima's
confession clearly mentions that she had no knowledge of what
transpired and if there was any money exchanged. That is
because she was not involved and the mother voluntarily gave
the baby to us."

He added: "The baby's mother was even present
during the formal adoption ceremony of the child
and she was acknowledged as the biological mother
as per our traditional tribal rites."

Scroll.in could not track down the fourth couple mentioned in
Indwar's statement to the police.

But members of the child welfare committee maintain that none
of the adoptions were innocuous. "How could Indwar know if
she was not involved?" asked Verma. "I will wait till the
investigations are over, but we always knew something was
wrong."

Verma said that three of the four children had been
returned to their foster parents "keeping in mind
the best interests of the children". The Agarwals,
Verma said, had not claimed possession of the child
they had allegedly procured from Indwar. Their
relative in Ranchi, Gupta, said that the family was
too embarrassed to take the child back.

PHOTO: After the child welfare committee raids on Nirmal
Hriday, children were taken away from other shelters run by
the Missionaries of Charity. (Photo credit: HT).

Previous allegations

Under the Juvenile Justice Act, district child welfare
committees have the powers of a magistrate. A committee has
four members and a chairperson, all selected by a state
government appointment panel, usually headed by a retired
high court judge.

The Ranchi child welfare committee has come under
fire for allegedly working on behalf of the
government. Its decision to shut down Missionaries
of Charity's children home, Nirmala Shishu Bhavan
-- where Budhini was housed -- has particularly
riled the charity's supporters. "Fine, they shifted
out the other pregnant girls from Nirmal Hriday
since they suspect something was happening there,
but what explains their decision to shut Shishu
Bhavan all of a sudden and displace the kids?"
asked Mary Tirkey, a social activist with ties to
the children's home. "What is it if not
vindictiveness?"

A senior BJP leader and minister in the state government
maintained there was "clear cut illegality" in the case, but
admitted the episode had given "ammunition" to the state
government to go after its detractors. It was, he said, a
"breather" from the tribal agitations in the state that had
cornered the government. "Every political party would cash in
on something like this," he said.

However, Rupa Verma, the committee's chairperson, denied that
it was acting on the behest of the government and pointed out
that her predecessor, OP Singh, had levelled similar
allegations against the Missionaries of Charity in 2014. She
claimed he had been shunted out by the previous government
led by the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, a tribal-centric party,
just when he was on the brink of exposing the irregularities
at Nirmal Hriday.

In an interview to Scroll.in, Singh said that he had "secret
information" that children were being sold by the charity.
Acting on his inputs, he and a member had visited the shelter
home for a surprise inspection, he said. "But the sister did
not allow us and accused us of harassment." Following an
enquiry by a panel headed by a retired judge, Singh and his
colleague at the committee were suspended for working beyond
his brief. "I was the head of the statutory body, but instead
of trusting me with investigating them, they shunted me out,"
he said.

The recent unearthing of the "racket", Singh claimed, was
proof that there was substance to his allegations. "If there
would have been an enquiry then, many innocent children would
have been saved."

But Sanjay Kumar Mishra, who was a member of the state child
rights protection commission at the time, said he too was
privy to the inputs Singh had. "But they were very specific
inputs about them not registering children with the child
welfare committee," he said. "It had nothing to do with
children being sold."

Mishra maintains that the current crisis merits a thorough
enquiry. But the government, he said, had squandered the
opportunity. "It was a chance to do some serious
investigations, but instead the government chose to score
political brownie points," he said. "So much noise has been
made that if there was indeed something wrong at other places
too, all the paperwork would have been sorted by now."

PHOTO: A primary school in Khunti district of Jharkhand. The
area is infamous for a high rate of trafficking of minor
girls. (Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia).

Poverty breeds crime

In Jharkhand's poverty-stricken districts, activists say an
illegal trade in babies flourishes alongside another problem
the state has grappled with: teenage pregnancies. Although it
has significantly declined in the last decade, teenage
pregnancy rates in Jharkhand are higher than the national
average.

Activists say unwed teenage mothers are often victims of
trafficking. The worst affected districts are
tribal-dominated Gumla, Simdega and Khunti. "There is a very
strong network of child-traffickers working in tandem with
local agents in these areas," said Tribhuvan Sharma, a child
rights and anti-trafficking activist. "And since there is
backbreaking poverty, it is quite easy to convince parents to
send their girls to work as domestic workers in Delhi, for
any kind of steady income is more than welcome."

Many of these women are sexually exploited and often forced
to return home pregnant. Social stigma associated with
unmarried pregnancies, in turn, leads to newborns being
deserted or given away to child shelter homes -- making the
state a natural refuge for child-seekers.

But it is not just sexual exploitation that is
responsible for a high rate of teenage pregnancy in
the state among its tribal population. Community
leaders and rural activists say that unsafe
consensual sexual practices have made matters worse.

Add to this the uncertainty introduced by the new adoption
rules of 2015. Sharma said the new rules meant to make the
process transparent had increased waiting time. Under the
previous regime, prospective parents were given three choices
of children to adopt. In the current system, there is no such
provision: prospective adopters are allotted a child and
allotted 48 hours to make up their minds. A negative response
three times in a row results in being relegated to the bottom
of the waiting list. "The current system challenges
traditional societal adoption methods, so people often resort
to breaking the law," the activist said.

An activist who runs a children's home and adoption centre in
the state said non-procedural adoption requests by urban
couples from bigger cities were quite common. "It's really a
win-win for everyone," he said. "Prospective parents don't
mind paying a little extra to beat the queue and get a child
of their choice. And for the adoption agencies, it's extra
unaccounted money. Obviously, it can't happen if some people
in the CWC are not on it too."

A ‘safe space'

For the tribal community, the vicious cycle of trafficking
and unwanted pregnancies is a constant reminder that they
have been left behind in a state that was carved out to
improve their access to resources.

"There are all these Delhi placement agencies [seeking
domestic workers] and they have their mediators here, who are
tribal people, always on the prowl for young girls," rued
Soma Munda, a tribal community leader in Khunti. "And
considering how bad things are here -- the education system
is choupat [broken] -- most of our girls hardly need any
convincing to go to Delhi." Unwanted pregnancies often
follow. "The society doesn't accept, so what does the girl do?"

PHOTO: Soma Munda, a tribal community leader in Khuti, blamed
the high rate of trafficking on bad governance. Photo:
Arunabh Saikia

For many of these girls, Ranchi's Nirmal Hriday provided a
safe space to live in and deliver the child. "It was a place
where girls knew that their privacy would be respected," said
Arpana Hans, a community leader and an advisor to the local
Catholic church. "I know girls who have come back from there
and carried on with their lives, got married and now lead
normal lives."

Hans added: "Since her family and society would not stand by
her, she can deliver the child on the street where chances
are both mother and child will die, or she can go to Nirmal
Hriday where confidentiality is going to be maintained and
she can deliver safely."

In August 2017, an unwed teenage girl was forced to deliver a
child on the road in the state's Chandil town, 100 metres
away from a community health centre, after government health
workers refused to attend to to her. The girl was reportedly
driven out of her home by her mother fearing social stigma.

Jyotsana Munda, a local journalist, said pregnant
teenage girls often went to Nirmal Hriday on the
recommendation of others who had spent time there.
For them, it was the last resort because the
government had no schemes or safe homes to ensure
their well-being. "The government seems to be
denying that there is a problem and that amounts to
legitimising the stigma that is attached to such
unwanted pregnancies by the society," she said.
"Shouldn't the government be doing better than
that?"

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