February 18, 2007. A two-and-a-half month old boy was found in a compartment of Indore-Hingoli express. Not able to trace his parents around, the railway police handed him over to Khandwa district hospital, Madhya Pradesh. A nurse in the hospital named him Shiv. Shiv was later adopted by Bhagwandas and Anjana Ahuja. The Ahujas had a fortune to their name, but no heir. Shiv ’s story featured in many newspapers across the nation. Many saw Shiv’s life as an ideal story of one’s fate, perhaps a result of good karma in the past life. Shiv was destiny’s child.
The story, however, also sheds light on the darker shades of the picture, an acute problem that ails our world today – child abandonment. Abandoned Children’s Fund, an organisation that works among abandoned children, claims that there are over 20 million homeless or abandoned children in the world today. India is one of the Asian countries leading the trend. According to Justice Verma committee, 60,000 children are abandoned every year. Topping the chart is Maharashtra, followed by Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Some like Shiv find home, but most do not. Out of all the abandoned children in 2010, only 2,518 were adopted. Where did the rest of them vanish? Some had found new families in foster care homes and orphanages, but most of them had ended up in human trafficking rackets. The trafficked children are then used for prostitution, forced marriage, illegal adoption, cheap labour and even for organ harvesting.
The story of Pastor Lee Jong-rak is a gush of fresh wind in this perilous situation. Pastor Lee noticed a grave problem plaguing South Korea – hundreds of unwanted babies abandoned on the side of the streets in Seoul. He knew he needed to do something. He built a “drop box” and placed it in front of his house. A sign on the box read: “Place to leave babies.” The box is made cosy with thick towel at the bottom, and sufficient lights and heat to keep the baby safe. As soon as someone places the baby in the box, the bell attached to the box rings, and Pastor Lee and his wife Chun-ja, immediately collect the baby. Till date the family has collected more than 600 babies.
Several NGOs and human rights organisations feel that such attempts, in fact, encourage abandonment of girls and thereby promote the low status of girls.
Lee’s concern is born out of his experience. Lee’s own child, named Eun-man (meaning full of God’s grace) was born with cerebral palsy, leading Lee to question God’s goodness. But it was in this child that he came to recognise the preciousness of life. Lee, not only came close to God, he even studied theology to become a Christian minister.
The story of Pastor Lee and his drop box has reached and touched many hearts through a 72-minute long documentary called “The Drop Box” made by Brian Ivie, a student at the University of California.
Several state governments and individuals in India too have plunged into similar action, having seen the dire situation of abandoned children, especially girls. Devendra Agarwal from Udaipur began an organisation and placed two cradles, one at his ashram and another outside a local hospital, after he noticed a moving scene of two foetuses dumped into a lake. Agarwal, however, acknowledged that ensuring stable life for girls was a struggle, as most of the adopting individuals had preference for boys.
“Cradle babies” is a project started by the government of Tamil Nadu in 1992 to save baby girls. It allows people to give “unwanted” baby girls to the state, rather than killing them. The children received are later sent to registered orphanages and put up for adoption. Similar scheme, known as Vuyyala (meaning cradle in Telugu) was started by the government of Andhra Pradesh in 2007. The project received at least 70 babies in its first year, out of which 90% were girls.
Christian children homes, especially Missionaries of Charity, established by Nobel laureate Mother Teresa, have always proved to be safe haven for abandoned babies. Babies with deformed limbs, HIV and girls left behind, all have found shelter in numerous infant homes and hospitals run by Christian community for decades, well before projects like Cradle babies saw light of the day. Take an example of Shishu Bhavan, run by Missionaries of Charity, in Bangalore. Many of the children they receive from Child Welfare Care (CWC) are HIV infected. Shishu Bhavan provides them shelter, food, education and also tries to help them overcome the disease. “Most of the children get healed of HIV and are given back to CWC, who then arrange for their adoption,” says a sister at Shishu Bhavan.
With growing number of fake NGOs, ugly nexus between prostitution racketeers and several children homes, and growing scrutiny by the government, such philanthropy is, however, becoming costly and complicated. Also, however praiseworthy, these efforts have not gone without criticism too. Several NGOs and human rights organisations feel that such attempts, in fact, encourage abandonment of girls and thereby promote the low status of girls. In a country where women are considered second-class citizens, will not such schemes offer people an easy way out to get rid of their girls?
The church grapples with myriad of difficult issues today, both globally and locally. While it has often boldly spoken against abortion, individual Christians like Pastor Lee call us to walk an extra mile in caring for the “unwanted”. Of the many challenges the church in India is facing, one is to address the worldview that considers a particular gender a source of shame and a result of curse. When every attempt of the Church is viewed with suspicion today, will the Church be able to remain true to its commitment to human life in its weakest form – abandoned and uncared for? If the church is to speak for poor and weak, unwanted babies cannot be outside its radar.