It took three years of waiting and enlisting with four different adoption agencies before Aaliya Swamy’s younger daughter finally entered her life.

Early in 2012, when her biological daughter was 5, Aaliya* and her husband decided that their second child would be an adopted girl. Registering themselves as prospective adoptive parents was an exhaustive process of form-filling and documentation, but the Swamys had a much longer road ahead.

In keeping with national adoption guidelines, the couple first approached an agency in their own city, Bangalore. Disheartened by the long waiting list of prospective parents, they began to look elsewhere as well. Their search took them to two adoption agencies in Maharashtra – in Ahmednagar and Nanded – and one in Odisha.

At the end of three slow and restless years, the call they had been waiting for finally came: a baby girl had been found in Nanded. Suddenly, things began to move much faster. It took just two weeks for the Bangalore agency to facilitate the inter-state adoption and in January this year, Aaliya carried her new six-month-old baby home.

All this while, the Swamys had not given much thought to the fees they paid for the adoption. “We were charged around Rs 1.6 lakh by the agency – almost the same as the fees cited elsewhere,” said Aaliya, a software professional. “I’ve heard that some agencies charge up to Rs 3 lakh for the process. The pricing differs from place to place.”

Cost concerns

Despite what the reality may be on the ground, the pricing for adoption is not supposed to differ from place to place. The Central Adoption Resource Authority – the nodal government agency regulating adoptions in India – has a fixed fee structure that all recognised agencies are required to follow.

Under CARA rules, an adoption within India should cost no more than Rs 46,000: registration for Rs 1,000, the home study process for Rs 5,000 and Rs 40,000 for the agency’s official child-care corpus fund. (Adoptions by non-Indian parents have a separate, higher fee structure.)

These are most likely the costs that online retail company Flipkart took into consideration when it announced an “adoption allowance” for employees last month: the company will now pay a one-time allowance of Rs 50,000 to any Flipkart employee who decides to adopt a child.

CARA rules also specifically forbid paying any “donations” in cash or kind to adoption agencies, which are often shelter homes run by charitable trusts.

When contacted several agencies, almost all of them confirmed that adoption fees total to a maximum of Rs 46,000, and that no donations are charged.

Adoptive parents, however, had different stories to tell. Some were charged just the official amount prescribed by CARA. Others were expected to buy a life insurance policy worth around Rs 1 lakh for the child’s future, even though it is not mandated by the CARA guidelines. And some, like Delhi-based Menaz Gupta, had to contend with agencies that asked for much more.

‘Not without a bribe’   

Menaz Gupta*, a public relations professional, decided to adopt her daughters the moment 4-year-old Asha* held her tight and said, “Mujhe aapke saath jaana hai” (I want to go with you).

In 2012, when they were still babies, Asha and her little sister Nisha* were found abandoned by a paan shop in rural Panipat. Rescued by the police, they eventually found their way to a shelter home and adoption agency on the outskirts of Delhi.

Around that time, Menaz was a frequent volunteer at another orphanage in Delhi. There, she heard of the two young sisters who were eligible for adoption but at the risk of being separated from each other. In the winter of 2013, Menaz decided to pay Asha and Nisha a visit at their shelter home (which she did not wish to name).

“The first time I went, I was not allowed inside. The second time, I went with someone who knew people at the agency, and got a chance to meet the girls,” said Menaz, who remembers every detail of those visits. “It was winter and the girls had been made to sit on the floor. I went with my husband a few days later, and they were still in the same old clothes.”

Nisha was not yet 3 at the time, but Menaz asked the older one, “Do you want to go home?” When Asha clung to her in response, Menaz didn’t take long to make her decision. The adoption process, however, proved to be more harrowing than she could have imagined.

As the only prospective parents willing to adopt both sisters together, the Guptas did not have to be on a waiting list. “We registered, submitted all the documents and paid the official adoption fee. The agency officials came home for the required home study report. But after everything, the officials at the agency refused to take the process further for several weeks because they were expecting a bribe – a donation of some kind,” said Menaz.

Unwilling to pay the bribe but afraid of jeopardising her adoption process, Menaz sought help from police officials and the tehsildar of the area. “It was only because of the pressure that these officers put on the agency that I was finally allowed to bring the girls home,” she said. “But agencies expecting illegal donations is not uncommon – one of my friends was asked for Rs 8 lakh when he adopted, another for Rs 15 lakh. These agencies treat adoption like a factory.”

‘This is buying and selling of children’

Adoptive parents from urban India are almost always aware of CARA’s official guidelines and fee structures, but some believe that agencies do have legitimate reasons to charge a little more.

“Shelter homes incur a lot of costs to look after children well, and they need funds for that,” said Aaliya Swamy, who was “impressed” to see that the orphanages she visited in Maharashtra, Odisha and Bangalore gave timely vaccinations to the children and fed them with good-quality formula milk. “At the end of the day, you don’t want the kids to suffer.”

At the CARA office in Delhi, however, Veerendra Mishra has no patience for such justifications.

“It has been very clearly mentioned to agencies that not a penny more [than Rs 46,000] must be charged, so agencies who ask for donations need to be shut down,” said Mishra, who claims he has been “struggling to get things in order” in the 10 months since he took charge as the secretary of CARA. “If parents are willingly paying extra, it means they are party to the buying and selling of children. They do it only as a short cut to get out of the waiting list.”

The CARA helpline, Mishra says, is always open to register complaints from parents. “If any agency is flouting the norms, they should let us know – I promise them action,” he said.

‘We are in a difficult situation’

Mishra’s enthusiasm to weed out corruption in India’s adoption system may seem encouraging, but as a shelter home in Maharashtra points out, the situation is a lot more complex than it seems.

“There are very few adoption agencies that receive direct funding from the government. The rest of us, even though we are government-recognised, have to rely on donors to survive,” said the founder of a charitable trust in rural Maharashtra, requesting anonymity. This trust runs a shelter home and adoption agency where the waiting period for adoptive parents usually lasts up to a year. The agency, the founder admits, charges between Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000 as the adoption fee.

Getting third-party donors to keep modest trusts running is not an easy job. “And if they don’t even allow adoptive parents to make small donations, it leaves the agency in a very difficult situation,” said the founder, who believes the government should allow those working on the ground to be a part of the policy-making process for adoption. “Inadequate funds will only mean a drop in care standards for children.”

(* names have been changed on request)

This is the second part in a series on adoption in India. The rest of the stories are here.