Child rights

Where is Dev, the child born through surrogacy but left behind by his parents?

A documentary filmmaker tries to track a surrogate child in Delhi.

In late 2012, an Indian-born Australian couple travelled to Delhi to see their twins, who had been carried by a surrogate mother, being born. They left for Sydney a few weeks later with just one of the twins, a girl. What happened to the boy? His name was Dev and his birth had been registered but the couple who commissioned him opted to leave him behind in India. They gave him up in adoption to a local family – friends of their friends, they claimed. But despite the efforts of numerous people, no one in any official capacity admits to knowing where he is now.

In 2015, I was part of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary film crew that investigated this story. Living in Delhi, I had first heard of the case in 2013 and had tried to find out more about it independently but it quickly became evident that this investigation needed more resources.

My investigations revealed that for too long, fertility doctors in India have been able to operate in an environment of impunity where they can set the rules and any attempts at regulation can be circumvented with relative ease; that, in India, the rights of the child are not placed above the rights of parents; that too many disparate bureaucratic arms allow cases, such as Dev’s, to fall between the cracks.

The case raised many questions: why would the couple effectively abandon one of their own children? If they knew that they did not want him, why had they allowed the child to be brought to term in the first place, rather than have the surrogate undergo an in-utero reduction, by which multiple foetuses in a surrogate are aborted in favour of just one? How had the various agencies and government bodies permitted them to leave the child? Did any money change hands? That would certainly constitute child trafficking.

The surrogacy ecosystem

Before 2013, bits of information about the pernicious nature of the surrogacy industry had been floating my way. My former housekeeper told me that her friend who worked as a baby nurse at a fertility clinic in south Delhi said that the doctor had had a surrogate die in her care. The surrogate had apparently suffered a ruptured uterus from too many pregnancies in quick succession. The nurse said that the doctor had paid the woman's family off to keep them from filing a police complaint.

My own fertility doctor told me of the nefarious web of agents who would procure surrogates and egg donors and present them to her. "Who are these people? Where are they finding them?" she wondered aloud, before she knew I was a journalist. She described how potential egg donors, young college-age women apparently from villages around Delhi, who would claim to have never donated their eggs before, yet would assume the correct position for a check-up without being told. The lack of transparency was why she refused to do surrogacies, she said.

I heard of doctors overcharging commissioning parents, particularly those from overseas. I heard of one doctor who reportedly refused to hand a surrogacy-born child over to its commissioning parents before they made an additional payment.

The silence in fertility clinics

I realised that the reporting on surrogacy in India was often misguided. The locus of the problem lay with the fertility doctors, rather than solely with foreign couples commissioning surrogate children. I spoke to prospective parents, to nurses and to surrogates. I found that fertility clinics operate in a silo structure where only the doctor, and perhaps managers, are aware of the whole picture and everyone else is kept in the dark, with separate entrances even to the clinics for nurses and surrogates. A lot of what I discovered never made it into the documentary.

As I investigated, two names kept reappearing: that of the South Delhi doctor in whose care a surrogate died, and the doctor's Gurgaon-based lawyer. It emerged that the lawyer had worked for the Australian couple at the centre of the story.

In early 2015, I started probing in earnest under contract to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In April, the results of a Freedom of Information request filed by the documentary team in Australia – the country’s equivalent of a Right to Information request – would reveal the all-important birthdate of the twins, which was vital in getting hold of their birth certificates. Till then, I was simply doing the rounds of Indian agencies to find out who could help.

From pillar to post

In February that year, I had first approached the National Commission for Women and met with its chairwoman, Lalitha Kumaramangalam. She listened with interest and told me the commission could only exert its powers if it had been a girl child left behind. She gave me a contact at the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

I rang the office of the contact, a senior officer at the commission, and a staff member instructed me to send an email, which I did. A few days later, a junior officer called me, listened to my request and told me to send an email via the website. I recognised this as the great brush-off and moved on.

Next, I tried the Child Welfare Committees, the sole government authority to deal with matters concerning children in need of care and protection. Initially, I went to a branch in Lajpat Nagar based on initial indications that the clinic involved in the twins' gestation and birth was located near there. I wanted to convince the committee’s social workers to help me trace how the twins were born and what happened to Dev. As I sat at the desk of the chairwoman and waited for her to finish another conversation, I saw a hefty file marked "Incest - URGENT CASES". She saw me looking and quickly slid another folder on top.

She then directed me to the Kalkaji branch, closer to the private hospital in Greater Kailash 2, where the babies had been born. There, four social workers and lawyers began to listen to my request, before cutting me off with questions of their own. Why did I want to do this? What was my motive? Surely, it was the couple's prerogative not take the baby boy home but to have him adopted? Why did I want to rock their boat? Their displeasure was clear, as was the fact that they wouldn't help. Here, the rights of the couple to their privacy absolutely outweighed consideration for the child to grow up in Australia with the people who commissioned him, and to know where he came from.

The adoption quagmire

A breakthrough came in the form of an NGO called Against Child Trafficking. The organisation’s Pune-based director Anjali Pawar agreed to take part in the documentary and help track down the child. With a long history in tracing the foreign parents of adopted children, Pawar has excellent connections all over the country. Through Pawar, I met an official at the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Mamta Sahai, who needed little persuasion to help. She drafted a letter to the hospital where the twins were born, requesting details of the doctors and clinics involved. As the commission has the powers of a court, the hospital was required to give answers or face a potential police investigation.

Activists Anjali Pawar and Arun Dohle of Against Child Trafficking, along with ABC cameraman Aaron Hollett, speaking with a shop owner while trying to track down the surrogate who gave birth to Dev. Photo: Mark Gould.
Activists Anjali Pawar and Arun Dohle of Against Child Trafficking, along with ABC cameraman Aaron Hollett, speaking with a shop owner while trying to track down the surrogate who gave birth to Dev. Photo: Mark Gould.

At the same time, we started looking into adoption processes. Adoption of Indian children by foreigners was curtailed in 2011, in response to strong indications of rampant child trafficking. But there is a government body called the Central Adoption Resource Authority or CARA for short, a statutory body under the Ministry for Women and Child Development. Surely, they would keep records of all adoptions, track adopted children and follow up for years?

Sadly, no. There is more than one way of adopting a child in India. There is the official course via CARA in which numerous detailed processes can take years. A child can also be placed with a family under the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act of 1956, the Guardians and Wards Act of 1890 and Juvenile Justice Act of 2000. CARA keeps no records of children adopted under the Hindu law, as Dev was. There is no trace of Dev’s adoption in official government records, nor of any other adoptions of the unwanted children born out of surrogacy.

Nobody knows

Our crew interviewed CARA’s secretary Veerendra Mishra for the film but the interview did not make the final cut. It was, however, jaw-dropping to hear him, on camera, firstly admit that he knew nothing about the case in question, and then say that he had agreed to the interview in the hope of finding out more from us.

Meanwhile, the hospital sent a thorough reply to Sahai’s query, which helped us paint a better picture of what happened. The fertility doctor who had overseen the surrogacy was Dr Anoop Gupta, a popular IVF and surrogacy doctor with his office in Bengali Market. We learned that Gupta’s clinic had been raided and sealed in 2013 by a government team set up to combat sex selection by doctors. The clinic was reopened a short while later, however, and he resumed his practice.

Gupta refused to speak to us. The lawyer in Gurgaon who worked with the Australian couple refused to speak to us. The Australian couple refused to speak to us, although the relatives they stayed with while in Delhi did, describing the twins’ birth as a "traumatic time".

Barely anyone else knew that Dev existed, let alone his whereabouts. The Australian couple’s lawyer and family members in Delhi assured us that the boy had been placed in a wealthy family in the city, and would in fact have a better life than he would have in Sydney, where the exorbitant cost of living puts pressures on large families. We left it at that, with the senior producers choosing not to reveal the Australian couple’s identities to protect their two children.

Dev disappears

Pawar promised that the quest for answers would continue. Sadly, this was not to be, as Mamta Sahai's tenure at the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights was not extended when it came up for renewal in July last year. With her exit from the agency, any hope of finding out Dev's whereabouts died.

The case was one of the triggers for the Indian government and Indian Council of Medical Research to move to tighten surrogacy regulations with the new draft Surrogacy Bill. But tighter regulations will not change the shambolic state of government child protection agencies.

I understand that when officials have thick files marked "Incest - URGENT CASES" they may not have the capacity nor will to track down one boy who is, by all accounts, with a loving adoptive family. Yet it does matter, if for nothing else than process. For if Dev can't be traced, what hope is there of tracking down other abandoned children via the proper routes?

Access to surrogacy can be a wonderful thing. For the vast majority of cases it brings untold rewards to commissioning parents and surrogates alike. But for too long, doctors have been entrusted with too much power and authority, and while there are many good and ethical doctors, there is too much room for error. There have been too few attempts to regulate fertility doctors’ practices. Meanwhile, restrictions on unmarried couples, gay couples, single men and women and couples who already have children from commissioning surrogate babies show that the Bill's drafters are blinkered by rigid heteronormative family values.

Presumably, the new draft bill is the closest they can get to shutting the industry down completely, but it has led to considerable consternation.

It is well and good to call for better regulation of the industry rather than restrict access, as the government has chosen to do. But my experiences have led me to believe that it is simply not possible due to the sheer lack of will on the part of numerous government agencies. Until they are better resourced, better structured and have people who actually care, they cannot be trusted

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