In October 2014, Srobona Das and Swarna Venkataraman started a Facebook group called For & Of Heart Babies to create an online community of adoptive parents in India. The two women from Bangalore are adoptive mothers –Das has a 5-year-old daughter and Venkataraman has a 4-year-old son. They wanted their small, private Facebook page to serve as a support group for others dealing with the practical and emotional difficulties of adoption.

Just 10 months down the line, For & Of Heart Babies has enlisted 295 members from several Indian cities, including both new adoptive parents and those about to adopt. Some members are Indians living abroad, and Srobona and Swarna have a long list of applications from parents eager to join the group.

In the group’s daily discussions, members help each other with everything from navigating the lengthy adoption registration process to dealing with questions from adopted children. “And there are so many people eager to adopt, who want to know how to convince their spouses or families,” said Srobona.

The eagerness visible in Srobona’s online group is also manifest in the long lists of prospective parents waiting to adopt a child after registering with government-recognised adoption agencies. In states like Haryana, for instance, there are at least 85 waiting parents for each adoptable child, while Delhi has more than 60 waitlisted parents for each child. For parents, the wait could last for as much as two to three years before they are finally matched to a child.

But the enthusiasm for becoming parents is also starkly contradicted by India’s dismal adoption rates. According to the Central Adoption Resource Authority, the nodal government body regulating adoptions in India, there were just 3,988 domestic adoptions in 2014, down from 4,694 in 2012 and 5,693 in 2010. In February, union minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi attributed India’s “shameful” adoption figures to “bottlenecks, idleness and deliberate lying” on the part of many adoption agencies.

A new system

Starting this month, however, the central government hopes to completely rejuvenate the adoption system. On July 26, the women and child development ministry notified a set of new guidelines for CARA, the adoption authority, with the aim of making adoptions faster and more transparent, and ensuring that at least 15,000 children are adopted every year.

The new guidelines include transferring the entire adoption procedure online, creating a centralised national waiting list, monitoring adoption agencies more closely and treating non-resident Indians on par with domestic Indian adoptive parents. The ministry and CARA have already begun cracking down on illegal adoptions and unauthorised agencies.

But can all the new changes truly bring about an adoption revolution? Will increased transparency solve the many problems ailing the system?

In India, say parents and adoption agencies, so much also depends on more basic concerns, like access to computers, knowledge of English and societal expectations for perfect, flawless babies.

Moving online

For the past two years, the first step of the adoption process has already been online. In order to sign up as prospective adoptive parents, it is mandatory to fill in a slew of forms on the CARA website before selecting an adoption agency of one’s choice. Parents have to submit everything from their health and financial details to recommendations from friends, employers and relatives, and errors made during the lengthy process cannot be easily corrected.

For parents like Mohan Mehta*, an IT consultant from Bangalore, navigating this automated procedure was not too much of a challenge, and when he needed help, he turned to fellow members of the For & Of Heart Babies Facebook group. Mohan believes the government’s decision to streamline adoptions online is a move in the right direction, but he cannot help wonder about the struggles of those who are not completely literate or familiar with online systems.

“In the big cities, where agencies are very clued into the automated system, the number of babies eligible for adoption is low. But in the villages and towns, where many more children are eligible, there are problems with internet access and familiarity with the online process,” said Mohan, who adopted his 7-month-old daughter last month.

In Delhi, CARA’s secretary Veerendra Mishra defends the system of online adoptions on the grounds that help is always available to those who need it.

“The government’s National Informatics Centre can help people with filling of online forms. And parents can always call the CARA helpline where we have three tele-counsellors and a battery of experts to take parents through the entire process,” said Mishra, claiming that CARA gets at least 250-300 emails from parents every day.

Mishra’s defence also relies on his belief that access to technology has increased many-fold across India in the past few years. “If you don’t have a phone, are you never going to make any calls? Today computers are easily accessible even in villages, and there are hundreds of computer kiosks [cyber cafes] where people without computers can ask for help.”

‘All the forms are in English’

Adoption agencies in rural India, however, point to a different reality.

“Ever since the registration procedure has moved online, parents have been going through a lot more trouble to complete it,” said Prajakta Kulkarni, founder of Snehankur, a shelter home and adoption agency in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district. While many prospective parents take the help of “younger people” around them to fill in registration forms, others turn to the agency for answers. “The whole process was much easier for us to explain when it was offline, and the face-to-face interactions also gave us a better understanding of how keen the parents were to adopt.”

The problem isn’t merely that the adoption process has moved online – it is also that online adoption registration is now entirely in English.

“Earlier, the forms were available in Hindi too, but now it is all in English so that it is easier for registrations to be transferred from one state to another,” said Anita Sharma, a government-appointed child development project officer with additional charge at Bal Gram Rai, an orphanage in Sonepat, Haryana. “English forms are hugely troublesome for many parents in these parts.”

Greater transparency

While registering online may come with its own set of problems, the new guidelines will allow for the creation of a single national waiting list – a change that prospective parents are eager to see. So far, individual agencies had their own waitlists irrespective of the number of children available, forcing parents to keep waiting for indefinite periods of time. If they wanted to transfer their registration to a different agency, it would mean getting on to a new waitlist.

A national waiting list would be able to match parents to available children anywhere in India, while also allowing them to keep track of where they are on the list. “This will speed up the process in a big way, especially for those willing to adopt older children or babies with special needs,” said Mohan.

The bigger advantage of a centralised waiting list, say some parents, will be the increased transparency about the availability of babies – individual agencies will no longer be able to put parents on hold citing lack of children.

“When parents register online, the website almost always shows that there are enough babies in the agency selected,” said Suman Ramasundaram, another adoptive parent from Bangalore. “But agencies often tell adoptive parents that are no babies available and that the line is very long. So where are all the babies going?”

One answer, says Srobona Das, is that orphans and abandoned children are being placed in shelter homes without the right paperwork to qualify them for adoption. “It is possible that agencies also lie [to CARA] about the number of available children,” she said.

But very often, it is the parents’ own biases and prejudices that leave children out of the adoption stream. “For every child who gets adopted, there are at least 10 others who are considered ‘non-adoptable’,” said Srobona. These are children who may be technically eligible for adoption, but almost never fit the preferences parents have. “Older children – beyond age 4 or even 2 – are not desirable for many parents. Kids with health problems or dark skin are also left out.”

When is a child adoptable?

In addition to the eligible children who are perceived as non-adoptable, agencies and parents are more concerned about the thousands of abandoned children who are completely denied the opportunity of qualifying for adoption.

In 2012, when Menaz Gupta* was keen to adopt two abandoned sisters from an orphanage in Delhi, she was told they were ineligible for adoption. “Those girls were not even 4 years old, and had been sent to the orphanage by the police after their father burnt their mother,” said Menaz, a public relations professional. “Their father has never visited them or come to claim them in all these years, but the agency says it cannot put them up for adoption simply because the biological parent is still around.”

Eventually, Menaz adopted another pair of abandoned sisters she came to know of in another adoption agency, but she worries about the future of the ineligible girls who are not too old to be considered adoptable anyway.

In Ahmednagar, Prajakta Kulkarni shares Menaz’s concerns. “There are so many children who cannot be brought into the adoption stream because they have a biological parent around, even if that parent has not come to claim the child for years,” she said. “For how long will a biological parent’s claim hold? Does a child not have a right to a home?”

(* names changed on request)

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