New Delhi, Jan. 20: Couples looking to adopt an infant in India have to brace for a long wait, with the queues much longer now than they were even five years ago.
For two infants in the 0-2 years age group available for adoption in Haryana, there are 169 couples waiting. For 20 such children in Bengal, there are 597 couples waiting. For 12 infants in Delhi, the number of couples waiting is 750. In Maharashtra, which has the highest number of children in this age group - 225 - there are 508 couples on the waiting list.
These statistics from the Child Adoption Resource Agency (CARA) reflect the dwindling number of infants in adoption centres.
Five years ago, the average ratio across the country would be around 60 infants to 100 prospective parents.
The drop in numbers has raised the spectre of illegal adoption networks, which, the government and social workers fear, are keeping the youngest children outside institutionalised care.
"Five years ago, we used to get around eight to nine infants abandoned with us every month. Now, around seven to nine appear every year," said Lorraine Martin, a Delhi-based social worker in charge of adoptions in Palna, a recognised adoption centre.
This is the figure that most agencies The Telegraph spoke to quoted as the average.
"I regularly get calls from couples on the waiting list informing me that they have got their baby and asking me to strike them off the list. How do they get a child without going through the system? They never explain. This is a major cause for concern," said Martin.
Soumeda Medhora of the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption, a Calcutta-based agency, says such calls have become frequent at her agency too.
CARA has sounded the alert.
In a public notice in newspapers three days ago, addressed to all hospitals, maternity homes and nursing homes, the nodal body governing all adoptions in the country instructed them to turn over any abandoned child to the local police station, an authorised agency or the child welfare committee.
"No person or institution shall run an adoption agency or carry out adoption placement of orphan, abandoned and surrendered children without a certificate of recognition from the competent authority," the notice added.
In another advertisement, CARA cautioned parents: "Do not hand over the child to any unauthorised person".
For adoptive parents, too, the agency had a word of caution: "Always adopt from a government-recognised adoption agency."
Social workers say that while there are no statistics to show exactly how many infants are abandoned annually, the figures for the total number of children across different age groups abandoned and the number of children adopted indicate that very few enter institutionalised care.
A 2011 study conducted by an NGO found 20 million orphans. Of them, only 0.3 per cent children were orphaned. The rest - 99.7 per cent - were abandoned. Going by the adoption figures available with CARA, only about 0.04 per cent of abandoned children are adopted through official agencies.
Medhora from the Calcutta-based agency says that "illegal adoptions" is one of the reasons for the mismatch between the figures.
"Many adoptions are not done through licensed adoption agencies. Adoptions done through hospitals and private adoptions do not figure in the statistics. There are also adoptions which are done within the family," she said.
An official of the women and child development ministry said that it "is to crack down on such illegal adoptions that we have tried to link hospitals, nursing homes, child care centres to the adoption agencies in the new Juvenile Justice Act".
But while the Juvenile Justice Care and Protection Act deems such adoptions illegal, adoptive parents appear to prefer a clean break with no legal paperwork.
"We were on the waiting list for some time, but we got our baby through a nursing home where an unwed mother gave birth. We then got a birth certificate in our names from the nursing home. We have told our relatives that we had the baby through surrogacy," said a couple in Delhi who didn't wish to be named.