With the infertility rate crossing 15 percent, Kashmir is joining the societies where childless couples are always seeking kids to adopt. Saima Bhat investigates the least known aspect of the Kashmir society in which abandoned babies are filling part of the surging demand gap amid new rules and processes that make offering a child for adoption easy
On a rainy afternoon in 2012 summer, Farooq Ahmad, an auto-rickshaw driver was driving alongside Srinagar’s Flood Spill Channel near Aalochi Bagh, when, all of a sudden, his mother’s pleas flashed back to his mind. His mother wanted him to leave his wife as she could not bear him a child in 15 years of their marriage. Farooq loved his wife and his mother too. So leaving either of the two was not an option. He burst into tears and decided to stop for a while.
Farooq parked his vehicle on the bund and came out to take rest under a mulberry tree. “I was weeping like anything while resting my head with a tree and suddenly my eyes saw a miracle,” Farooq said. “In utter disbelief I saw an infant moving an arm from a bag. I thought God has answered my silent prayers and tears. It was a miracle that changed my destiny.”
His happiness, however, was short lived. He was hugging the infant, a baby girl, when the local police arrived on the spot. “He had kept the abandoned girl close to his heart and was crying that the kid has been sent by God for him only,” says Shahid, an eyewitness. “He gave a tough time to cops by not leaving the abandoned child. Ultimately the police motivated him to come along to the police station so that they can at least register the FIR.”
There is a set procedure if an abandoned child is found anywhere in the state. If found in Srinagar, they mostly land up in GB Pant Hospital for the treatment and then these children’s custody is given to the childless couples who remain waiting in the queue with their applications.
Earlier, the permission was granted by the Chief Judicial Magistrate for an adoption. Now, the Child Welfare Committees (CWC) that run under integrated child protection schemes (ICPS), a government scheme, is the main body that decides the fate of the abandoned children.
In 2018 Ramazan, the Muslim month of fasting, when Sonwar residents came out of the Masjid after Fajar prayers, they were surprised to hear the cries of an infant from a bag thrown on the road. The bag was surrounded by half a dozen dogs. “I was surprised to see that dogs were not trying to harm the baby instead it seemed like they were protecting it,” said Zamrooda quoting one local saying who rescued the child and brought it to the GB Pant Hospital. She is the senior nurse in the hospital.
Over last three decades of her services, mostly in children hospitals and as in-charge of neonatology, Zamrooda is mostly recognized with a name of ‘NICU mother’ a name given to her by last medical superintendent of GB Pant Hospital.
Zamrooda joined the services somewhere in the late 1980s when Kashmir was relatively calm. She remembers the names of all abandoned children in the children’s hospital, which was then located with the lone tertiary maternity hospital, the Lala Ded Hospital for women.
“Since my first posting, I have been associated with the children as I was posted in-charge of the neonatology ward,” Zamrooda said. “I used to get children in my ward every other hour but when nobody came to feed them during intervals that were enough indications that the infant has been abandoned.” The unclaimed babies were received from causality ward, OPDs, hospital washrooms or sometimes left anywhere inside the hospital premises. But after the recovery of an abandoned baby, the staff has to inform the medical superintendent who would file an FIR in the concerned police stations. This is the standard operating procedure (SOP) that is unchanged.
After the children’s hospital was shifted to Sonwar, Zamrooda was shifted to Gousia Hospital and then to the Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (IMHANS) Kashmir. Four years later, she returned to the GB Pant Hospital, as the in-charge of the neonatology ward. So far, she has served this ward for more than 15 years.
Over the years, Zamrooda was witness to many abandoned babies, their stories and how desperately she has seen childless couples roaming in the hospital corridors asking the staff to give them a child. Some even promised them to be rewarded monetarily. “They used to ask me maybe because they might have seen me handing over the children to childless couples in the pictures,” she said.
There was a set procedure that all abandoned children were handed over to childless couples by the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) Srinagar. The couples would keep their applications with the CJMs office and once an abandoned infant is available for adoption, the families would be called. It was the discretion of CJM to whom the children will go but under a set protocol. Hospital administration had no role in this.
The CJM used to ask the couples seeking children to file their property papers, bank details and only then the court would decide the fit couples for the custody of these abandoned children on proper verification.
Once approved, the couple would reach GB Pant with a court order and Zamrooda would hand over the child. “Usually these children remained with us for almost a month and till that time I and other staffers used to take care of them,” Zamrooda said. “I miss all of them. They have always been close to my heart. I have named most of those abandoned children who came in my tenure.”
Every year, Zamrooda said by an average she used to receive five or seven abandoned children and over the years it has remained the same.
As per the statistics provided by the medical superintendent of the GB Pant Hospital, from 2012 to February 2019, a total of 27 abandoned kids were received by the hospital. As per the local police station records at Ram Munshibagh, where they have to register all the FIRs related to abandoned children, a total of 12 FIRs are registered from 2013 to 2018.
The children’s received at GB Panth includes 12 baby boys and 13 baby girls. A few of them included kids with genetic problems as well.
Salmaan and Burhaan made headlines in 2017. They were in the GB Pant Hospital for more than a year till a local religious organization took their custody. For more than a year both kids remained in search of a family but the childless couples visiting the hospital refused to take them. Salmaan has a congenital neurological disorder and Burhan has a hypoxemia brain injury, which happens because of lack of oxygen during the time of birth. Both were named by the hospital staff.
As per the hospital staffers, a Bangalore based NGO had applied for their custody in the court of CJM, which was granted but the children were not handed over as the then MS was on leave those days. Till the MS joined back, someone had stayed the CJM’s order granted by the 4th additional district judge and kids were not handed over to that group. In the meantime, a local NGO approached the court and both the kids were given to them. “We have never kept the abandoned children with us for such a long time but Salman and Burhan’s case was different. They were neglected because of their health issues,” says Dr Kawarjeet Singh, the MS at GB Pant Hospital.
Dr Singh said the abandoned children in the state are never given to the nonresidents of the state as the state has stringent laws for the custody.
However, the hospital records reveal that in 2016, a baby girl with Down’s Syndrome was also in the hospital for a long time but a single mother from Pune managed to take her custody. “It took her three months to persuade the CJM, who was from Jammu, to give the custody of the girl. But almost a year after adoption, the baby girl passed away,” said a well-informed source in the hospital.
It is mostly the ‘good families’ who get the custody of these children through court, alleges one couple. “We had applied for the custody of a child but we were not given any because we are not economically that sound. What is my fault if my husband is not financially sound?” Zarina, who had a medical condition and could not bear a child, she said.
Seeing her desperation and the deteriorating health, her husband went directly to the LD hospital where he managed, with the help of hospital staff, to reach out to the family who delivered twin girls in the hospital but did not want to take both the girls home. It happened after going regularly to the hospital for almost two years.
“I requested them to give me one even if they want to do it for some money but they were too generous after seeing my desperation. They handed over one of the baby girl to me not for the money but with a promise that I will take care of the baby as my own daughter,” Abdul Hameed, Zarina’s husband, said. “I can’t even tell you how thankful I am and since then my wife is perfectly all right. We are parents now and we even celebrated the day by giving a grand feast to our relatives.”
Unlike Zarina, Nahida was lucky to get a girl through CJM even though her husband is a small-time businessman. He owns a welding shop. Zarina had a miscarriage once and unhealthy babies were born on two occasions who could not survive and finally, she approached the court with an application.
One fine day Zarina was called in to have an abandoned baby girl in GB Pant but the child was born with a cleft lip and palate which can be corrected by surgery.
“Maybe because of her genetic defect the girl was abandoned by her biological parents,” Zamrooda said. “But Zarina happily accepted her. But the then MS promised her that hospital will bear all expenses of her surgery and finally the surgery was conducted, and now they are living happily. It has been five years since then and the couple does come here for the regular follow-ups.”
In her entire career, Zamrooda is witness to a single case where the abandoned child was given back to the family that had abandoned the baby. While recounting the chilling details she revealed that an unwed mother delivered a baby boy in the hospital but soon she “threw him out from the first floor of the building, with the intention that baby should die.”
But the destiny had something else in the store. The hospital staff was in the compound, watching the infant in the air. After the baby was rescued, the investigations led to the identity of the mother. The infant survived after getting timely treatment. The police registered a case and the court reached out to the mother. “The court later made the mother to marry the biological father of that kid. Finally, the kid was also handed over to the couple,” Zamrooda said.
In 2009 the Central government launched the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS). In March 2013, the state government amended the Jammu and Kashmir Juvenile Justice Act, 1997 for the welfare of juveniles. It was in 2017 when the state government constituted the selection-cum-oversight committee or the Child Welfare Committees (CWC) the apex body for monitoring and evaluation of the ICPS. Subsequently, Justice Husnain Masoodi, a former Judge of the Jammu and Kashmir, was appointed as chairman, a selection-cum-oversight committee under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of children) act 2013.
Under this Act, the power of granting custody of an abandoned child that was lying with CJMs was also given to the CWC. These committees are operational in all districts of the state. Any abandoned child is now taken over by the social workers of the CWC’s after getting the mandatory treatments from the hospitals.
Recently in February 2019, a help desk was set up inside the premises of LD Hospital by the CWC for the parents who want to abandon their children and for the ones who want to have custody of the children. This desk came into existence soon after the lady from Kalaroos area in Kupwara delivered a baby on road because of the alleged negligence of the doctor in the hospital and the baby could not survive.
Whenever there is news of an abandoned child, the CWC team reaches on the spot and takes over the custody of the child, says Afshan Paul, the nodal officer of ICPS. After giving treatment in the hospital, they are shifted to CWC’s Cradle House. “We have aayas, helpers, who take care of them and give them a homely environment. We have many ‘fit parents’ waiting in the queue for the custody of children,” Paul said.
After receiving applications, CWC teams seek details from the couples and do the verification including police verification if any of the parents is not involved in any case, check their income status, health status from the CMO, permanent residence proof, aadhar card, a consent letter, nikah nama and NOC from bank regarding loan. On the basis of these eight things, couples are declared as fit parents for the welfare of a child.
Afshan said the Muslim majority Jammu and Kashmir has the most stringent rules. “We do not go for adoptions, there is no law for adoption in our state,” Afshan said. “We just provide the custody of the child first for the three months and if satisfied, only then we provide the permanent custody to the parents. The family remains under observation of our social workers till we get satisfied the kid is in safe hands.”
By opening up a help desk at LD Hospital, Afshan believes the parents who want to abandon their child will come directly to them and hand over the child. “Recently we had a family from Kupwara who handed over their daughter to us. The family already had three daughters at home and this one was born with some medical condition so we just asked them to fill a form to grant her custody and then they handed over the baby girl.”
Just a fortnight back an abandoned girl was found in JVC Hospital. “The baby’s one eye was not fully developed maybe because of that the family left the child,” Afshan informed. “As soon as we received her, we assigned our workers to be in the hospital for her care till the doctors decide if the girl needs to undergo a surgery or we have to wait till the eye gets developed. She could be a case of premature delivery as well. We have kept her under observation.”
Last year, CWC was in possession of a baby boy who was born to an unmarried minor. “The family of the girl came to know after six months that their daughter is pregnant,” Afshan said. “She was a victim of rape. Terminating the baby was not an option that time so when our CWC of that district came to know about the case, we took over. We provided her treatment until she completed her pregnancy and when she delivered the baby, the mother’s father handed over him to us. Mother was a minor so she will take care of the child was not possible. We kept the baby with us and later gave his custody to fit parents.”
Afshan said there is no discretion by the childless couples for having baby girls only. They have equal demand for baby boys as well.
In a bizarre incident, a father was arrested by the police station Nowhatta for trying to bury his son alive in December 2018. Later, the family was identified to be residents of Shopian whose son was born with a congenital deformity. When CWC came across the case, the local court took over the possession of the child and decided to bear the expenses of the child.
“The child was operated upon at SKIMS and was doing perfectly all right. Later we received an application of custody for the same child by his paternal uncle and after doing his verification we declared him fit and handed over the child to him,” Afshan says.
At the cradle house of CWC, there are three helpers working full time and as the need arises, if a child needs medical attention, a roaster is made and they are asked to be on duty with that particular child. At the help desk in LD hospital, 12 national youth corps (NYC) members work as per their duty schedule, round the clock.
Over the years, Afshan says the rate of abandoned children is the same, maybe around 10 or 11 per year, but the rate of childless couples has increased many folds. Every day CWC receives one or two applications. In February alone, CWC’s received 49 applications from childless couples in total with highest 26 applications in Srinagar, followed by Shopian with 5 applications, 4 each in Budgam, Baramulla, 3 in Ganderbal and one each by other districts. In the last one year CWC has declared only 11 fit couples who were handed over children.
But this year CWC managed to handle a case where the trafficking of an infant was involved.
In 2018, a lady in Budgam district reported to the district court that she has been thrown out by her husband even when she is eight months pregnant. The court intervened and ordered the lady should be kept in a Markazi Falahi Mastoorat (MFM) Nari-Niketan in Chadoora area. But after sometime her relation with her husband became normal and she went back to her house.
“We were following her case so after her delivery the lady and her husband sold out the infant to a Jammu family for a hefty amount,” Afshan said. “But we filed an FIR and police recovered the baby from Jammu. Our CWC has also filed a PIL in Budgam court under human trafficking and we came to know the lady had an affair with her son-in-law and was bearing his child. The child’s custody has now been taken over by the CWC,” shares Afshan.
The rate of infertility in Kashmir has reached to 15.7 percent as per a recent study published on researchgate.net, dated November 2018. The magnitude of the crisis leaves the childless couples with only a few options. “These childless couples go to any extent for having a child. If a patient affords then they go for IVF treatments in state or in mainland India even if they fail once or twice,” Dr Lubna said. “Not having a child in Kashmir is a different pain. In my career, I have seen homes breaking for want of a kid.”
Shaista, 37, is married for 12 years now but could not bear a child. All of her medical reports reveal she is medically normal and so is her husband Arshid.
“For almost three years I did not take it seriously but after that, things started changing in my family. More than my husband, my in-laws were asking for the conception. So I decided to go for medical consultations but nothing worked,” Shaista said.
After five years, Shaista and Arshid decided to go for an IVF and over next five year they did almost 6 IVFs. “I know it was risky to go for repeated attempts but I don’t care. You can’t imagine what it means being childless. It was both ways my death. But I am happy that this time it is successful,” a beaming Shaista said. She is expecting her first baby next month and her joy had no end when the doctor declared she is having twins. But as per the experts, the IVF’s success depends on many reasons and many couples are not lucky enough to get it successfully.
Among all the lucky childless couples who got custody of children, there is still an unknown case pending in GB Pant Hospital. The case is haunting the staffers for a long time now.
“We had a case where mother died while giving birth to a kid. The kid was shifted to GB Pant for treatment as the family got busy with the burial of the mother,” one insider in the Hospital said. “The same night electricity was suspended and the kid was stolen from the hospital. Next morning when the family came for the kid and found the last hope of their son was also stolen. They went to court but nobody knows what happened to the case later.”
(All names of the patients have been changed to protect their identities.)