A top the first floor balcony of a two-storey house in Bhaduria, a small town in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, a decaying façade has the following Bengali words etched in cement: “Niraash aadharey khoda…Tumi hey aashar noor (In this hopeless gloom, you are the only ray of hope).” Below it, a large signboard reads: “Sohan Nursing Home and Polyclinic.” The privately owned clinic, locals tell Outlook, had built quite a reputation in the neighbourhood as a philanthropic establishment specialising in “unwanted pregnancies”—helping “unwed mothers” give birth. For many women from poor families who had few options except such clinics, it would indeed have seemed like a “ray of hope”. The shutter came crashing down after a CID (Criminal Investigation Department) team raided the place late on November 21 and claimed to have busted a baby-trafficking racket.
According to the CID, the West Bengal Police’s detective wing, the sleuths first arrested a local midwife Najma Bibi, who was indirectly associated with the nursing home, and she led them to the premises where three babies were found, all less than one year old. Two had allegedly been packed inside a cardboard box, and seemed ready to be trafficked out. The police were able to find the parents of the third and returned the baby to them.
“The number of babies available for legal adoption is very low,” says CARA director Deepak Kumar. “Many parents take the illegal route.”
The nursing home was owned by Asaduzzaman, who was arrested along with a doctor. The interrogation that followed, police say, unearthed an elaborate network of nursing homes, NGOs and adoption agencies. In the days since Najma’s arrest, nearly a dozen babies—most of them malnourished and suffering from diseases related to lack of proper care—have been rescued from various nursing homes and NGOs across the state and beyond. The police suspect that many infants could have been trafficked outside the country in the three years that the racket has been in operation. Investigators claim to have found two babies inside makeshift graves in the backyard of Sujit Dutta Memorial Welfare Trust, an NGO in the nearby town of Machlandapur. The babies must have died while they were being trafficked from the nursing home and the police infer that the Trust was a sort of “first stop” on the trafficking route. Three more bodies were found abandoned in a field outside Calcutta and the police suspect they were killed by the traffickers.
“We suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Ananya Chakraborti, chairperson, West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights. Working alongside the CID in the case, she says they are probing the possibility of the racket being linked to bigger international trafficking networks. Another source, who didn’t want to be named, shows Outlook a video clip of a row of babies said to be lying dead somewhere in Thailand. “They were killed and their organs sold,” claims the source. “While, on the face of it, the racket busted in Bengal seems to be about luring unwed mothers to sell their newborn—so the adoptive parents are as much to blame—there is surely more to it.”
Cut to Shakurpur village, a small-industry hub on the outskirts of Delhi where many nursing homes and placement agencies are also located. One such placement agency is accused of having brought three minor girls from a village in Orissa’s Dhenkanal district in 2015. The girls were promised employment but ended up in sex work. “When they became pregnant, those who had brought them to Delhi “persuaded” them to give away their babies for Rs 10,000 each and allegedly sold each baby for Rs 3 lakh in the name of adoption,” says Rakesh Senger of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, an NGO that participates in rescuing women and children trapped in such situations. A case was filed in September and investigations are on.
Senger points out that there are many such placement agencies and nursing homes across the country. According to government data, 1,361 cases of child trafficking were filed in 2013 alone. “The figure represents only a fraction of the total number for such crimes,” says Senger. “In the past few years, more and more poor women from Assam, Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have been brought to big cities as domestic help and sex workers by promising a modicum of financial security to them and their families. Owners of illegal placement agencies often subject them to various forms of abuse to force them to accept any kind of work—manual or sexual.”
Women are sometimes forced to remain in the custody of the nursing homes or placement agencies after the babies are born and many recount cases of being forced to give them up for ‘adoption’. Dinesh Gautam, director of Drishti Foundation, an NGO involved in rehabilitation of trafficked children, says there have also been cases in Assam and Orissa where local ASHA workers (Accredited Social Health Activists), posted in the villages as part of the Union health and family welfare ministry’s National Rural Health Mission, have helped identify pregnant women from poor families. “The parents are often forced to travel with their newborn to cities in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan to sell the child so as to not raise suspicion,” he says.
Babies found during a raid on Purbasha Home at Thakurpukur, Calcutta
According to the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA), a government body, the number of applications for adoption surpassed 12,000 last year and 3,011 children were eventually adopted. “The number of children legally available for adoption in our country is still very low,” says CARA director Deepak Kumar. “No wonder many parents take the alternate route, which is illegal.” While CARA works with state-level authorities to identify children who need to be adopted, a larger number of children are trafficked and sold through illegal channels. The process of such ‘adoptions’ often involves a range of stakeholders from owners of placement agencies and nursing homes to government officials who help in forging the necessary documents. In the Solan nursing home case, for instance, the 18 persons arrested so far include courtroom clerks who allegedly prepared fake documents such as birth certificates, besides doctors, nurses, midwives, owners and employees of various clinics and NGOs.
The selling price, say sources, varies between Rs 1.5 lakh and Rs 15 lakh, with babies matching the client’s “specifications”—gender, skin colour, caste, pedigree—fetching relatively more. “Male babies sometimes sell for even double the price of a female one,” says Gautam. Moreover, most people prefer fair-complexioned babies with no signs of injury, disease, malnutrition or birth defects. Birth certificates are acquired easily by paying a bribe at any district-level office of the registrar of births and deaths.
According to a complaint received by the DIG of West Bengal’s CID, the owner of an NGO operating in Jalpaiguri district and Siliguri subdivision in the northern part of the state, which also runs short-stay homes for women in crisis, was “selling babies” for “Rs 1 lakh to Rs 4 lakh” each with “the help of the District Child Protection Officer”. “Not a single case of adoption has been free of cost [and] the cases are not legally recorded on any register,” reads the complaint, which alleges that six children missing from the NGO were sold by the owner.
In the Bhaduria case, the doctors and midwives did not stop at convincing and, allegedly, even coercing, the women to hand over their newborns to the nursing home and dissuade those who wanted abortions (by offering money if they gave birth at the clinic), but babies were also “stolen” from couples after they were told their child was stillborn. One such family narrated an incident from six months earlier in which the nursing home showed them a dead female baby and offered them money when they refused to believe she had died. “My daughter Jahanara had been admitted at Sohan on the recommendation of a relative,” says Reshma Bibi of Junglepur village. “Since we are very poor, it was a relief to hear they were charging less than the other nursing homes. But they told my daughter that the baby was stillborn. When she refused to believe it, saying she had heard her cry, they told her she was very sick. Then they showed my husband the body of a female baby, who was clearly not a newborn, and said this is your granddaughter.”
Reshma’s husband, Zakir Mulla was unconvinced and, suspecting foul play, threatened to lodge a complaint with the police. He was told the police would not heed his complaint and warned against raising a stink as that could expose his daughter to ill-treatment at the hospital, where she would have to stay for at least another seven days. “Then they offered him Rs 7,000,” says Reshma.
The dead child that was handed to them lies buried behind the slum where Zakir and Reshma live, and their daughter has gone back to her in-laws’ in a state of shock. They would not mind if the CID decides to dig up the grave to do a DNA test of the skeleton and determine whether her daughter and son-in-law are the real parents.
Two babies were found buried in the backyard of this NGO at Machlandapur in Bengal’s North 24 Parganas
Gautam points out that although the anti-trafficking bill includes measures to curb the theft and sale of babies, the menace is yet to be addressed adequately on the ground. “Laws are passed in Parliament, but the police and social workers do not follow the rules,” he explains. “Doing otherwise demands social and political sensitivity, which has so far been overshadowed by the lure of easy money.”
Elsewhere, at Machlandapur’s Raghunathpur village, which houses the Sujit Dutta Memorial Welfare Trust, the ground is dotted with tiny patches of hollow earth. “These are the graves that were being dug for the babies,” says a local farmer and village elder, who had to cross the dirt path that cut through the NGO’s front yard to get to his paddy field every day. “It never occurred to me there could be such horrors inside.” About Polly Dutta, the house owner and co-owner of the NGO, who was also arrested, he says, “She was friendly and offered tea to anybody who dropped in at their house. She grew up in this village. Her father was a junior officer in the Indian navy and theirs was one of the more respectable families in the neighbourhood. They were five sisters. Polly got married to a boy from this village. But they didn’t get along and got divorced, only to reunite after two years, when they had a daughter.”
Villagers say trouble began after the couple got separated again and Polly started seeing another man, who lived near Calcutta. Polly’s 14-year-old daughter, Ashmita, blames the latter for what her mother did. “He used to beat her up,” she says. “My mother is a good woman.” Polly is said to have left her partner and returned to work in the NGO at the village along with another man. The police suspect the former could be involved in the ring, though he has not been arrested. The village elder lets on that this man could well have been the source of the tip-off. “He and the man who lived with Polly at the NGO and drove the ambulance that ferried the babies had a tiff recently,” he says.
Ten children were rescued from Purbasha Home
Even though Polly’s daughter Ashmita and Polly’s mother lived in the same house in the village, the daughter claims she knew nothing of what was going on. “My mother was always involved in charity work and she helped people without children to adopt babies, so it was not surprising to find her going out and returning with small children,” she says. “But I was away at boarding school most of the time and did not know the details.” She never suspected dead babies were buried in the ground just behind the kitchen.
The most startling revelation that has emerged from Outlook’s investigation into the case is the normality of the people who are reportedly involved in the crime. At the village hut of the domestic help who worked at the Machlandapur NGO live her four daughters, who dream of becoming doctors and teachers. “My mother was initially hired by Polly to do the laundry and other chores like doing the dishes, sweeping and dusting,” says Afroza, the youngest one. “Gradually she was made to get involved. We never knew about it. ‘For you children, I am having to do a lot of things I never thought I would do,’ she would often tell us.”
Saina, the eldest daughter, breaks down while talking about how their mother was hauled to prison. “We are poor, so she had to work,” she says. “They exploited my mother. Polly would call her any time of the day or night and tell her, ‘Get ready, we have to go pick up children.’ But we didn’t know what that meant. Had we known, we would have stopped her.”
At the arrested midwife Najma’s house in Srirampur, too, the villagers express shock. “We can’t believe she was capable of committing such acts,” says a neighbour. “She has two young sons, who are now virtually orphaned with both their parents in jail.”
Another elderly villager, on his way to the evening namaaz at the mosque, says in a whisper, “The lure of money can turn a saint into a sinner. We must always pray to god to deliver us ferom evil.” That’s exactly what the cement etching on the façade at the Sohan nursing home says.
By Dola Mitra in Calcutta and Arushi Bedi in Delhi