The Cradle Of Life This Project lets parents give unwanted baby girls anonymously to state, saving them from possible death in region where daughters are seen as burden.

Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu:

It took about 30 minutes to find room number 34, the baby reception centre of the Cradle Baby Scheme (CBS), in the Dharmapuri Government Hospital. A woman dressed in a blue saree is mopping the cement floor. The starched folds of her cotton saree were already losing its stiffness in the thick heat. It took some time to catch her attention as she was immersed in her work.

The reception centre also called the cradle child centre is a single room with pictures of babies, of the late chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa with babies and her portrait. Though the floor was clean, patches of paint on the wall were missing and the room was dingy. It had only two windows and both of them were closed. On the left were three green painted cradles with Jayalalithaa’s photos on them. Each cradle had a tiny mattress and a cushion. Two of them also had green bags with the chief minister’s photo in the centre. On the right, there was a refrigerator, a gas stove and a cylinder. The room also had a green cupboard and a weighing scale placed, again, on a green table.

After she was done with her cleaning, V. Rani, the woman handling the reception centre here, said she had been working in Dharmapuri since 2008. “The year I joined, there were 113 children who were left at the centre. At the beginning, parents would secretly leave their babies in the cribs. These days, they are more open and simply hand over the infants to us,” she said. When infants are left secretly, they are considered “abandoned” children, who form part of the second category, the first being the “surrender” category, she adds.

A pink chart on the wall behind Rani had a huge table with something written in Tamil. “I made this a week ago. It has the numbers of babies received by us from 2001 to 2016,” she said. Rani showed documents that had information about a few babies and other data related to the CBS. “We take a written consent from parents on a stamp paper that they are willingly surrendering their babies. I often try counseling them, but seldom have they considered my advice.”

The chart not only revealed that the rate of abandoned newborns has decreased, but also the number of girl children being surrendered or abandoned has come down in the last 15 years. While the centre received 149 girl babies in 2001, it decreased to 60 in 2010 and 8 in 2016.

“Babies are often found in ditches. In the beginning, I was very shocked to find newborns in dustbins at bus stands and railway stations, barely being able to breathe due to the garbage around them,” she said, calling such sights disturbing.

She showed a brown envelope that contained pamphlets and a few registers. One of the pamphlets had information about the scheme.

Introduced in 1992 by Jayalalithaa in her first term as chief minister, the scheme was—and is—intended to tackle female infanticide in the state. The scheme also offers parents another solution: the option of anonymously handing over unwanted babies to the state, giving them a chance to live. First launched in Salem in 1992, the scheme was shelved in 1996 during the change of government, although babies were still left in cradles across the area. In 2001, the scheme was reintroduced and extended to Madurai, Dindigul, Theni, and Dharmapuri—all areas in south Tamil Nadu where female infanticide was rampant. It was then extended to the entire state.

There were pictures of babies, not more than a month old and photos of couples coming to the centre for adoption.

Most parents who surrendered their children quoted poverty and unwanted babies as reasons, Rani explained. “I gather from my higher officials that lack of education and the low status of girls in this region is the reason. From what I’ve experienced, people mostly don’t want more than one girl child. During 2009-11, there were many cases of teenage and unmarried pregnancy,” she said. Explaining the system of “baby collection”, the Deputy Social Welfare Officer (DSWO), S. Revathi, working on a laptop with Jayalalithaa’s photograph on it, said,“There are cradle baby centres in every district and sometimes in villages too. Babies are only received by us and at the end of every day; we call the relevant adoption centres to collect them. There are 15 adoption centres across the state. One is in Krishnagiri itself.” Few of the adoption centres are partially owned by the government, while a few are run by the Church and other missionaries, she added.

The Social Welfare Department office was a dilapidated white building, with walls in dark yellow. The room had dust piled up in the corners. There were old wooden tables like one would see in schools and huge monitors (not LCD) placed on them for employees.

According to the rules of the program, infants should be put up for adoption only after three months of age. “Initially, many infants were surrendered because they were girls. Nowadays, it’s mostly because babies suffer from disease or are handicapped and parents can’t afford the treatment. Considering this, babies are not given up for adoption if parents don’t seem trustworthy. Biological parents can return to the reception centres within six months if they want their children back,” Revathi said. This hasn’t been happening lately, considering the number of children received has been decreasing.

The adoption centres receive babies from the reception centres based on “seniority”. If an adoption centre has a record of taking good care of the infants and being able to let capable parents adopt them, they are considered senior to other adoption centres. However, every centre has to renew its registration every three years. “As of now, only six centres are active and Ananda Asharam in Krishnagiri is one of them.”

If a few infants are not adopted by anybody, they remain at the centre and are brought up there. “It is our responsibility to create awareness about child marriages and female infanticide. We conduct programs once in two months about the disadvantages of child marriage,” said Revathi.

The statistics provided by the project officer in the same department, Sumathi R, showed that the number of cases of child marriage filed in 2016 alone were 157, while it was 82 in 2014. “Lack of awareness isn’t the only reason that this continues to happen. A father sees a son as someone who carries the family seed forward while a daughter is, by and large, regarded as a burden on family.”

There are no official figures on how many girls have been killed, but government officials say that at least one or two cases of babies being abandoned or found dead are reported every month. The government claims that this scheme has been successful and the sex ratio in the state has improved. There have also been conflicting views that were reported by the media that the scheme had failed to tackle female infanticide as it encouraged parents to abandon girl children and allowed them to shift their responsibility to the state.

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