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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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?”

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?”