The cradle of life


Sister Premila Joseph is late. She hurries down the passages of the orphanage she works at in Kadathur, Dharmapuri, footsteps cutting through the quiet. It’s the middle of May in 2009 and although it’s barely 6 a.m., the stiff, starched folds of her regulation cotton sari are already wilting in the thick heat.

Premila has had the same routine for the past three years, and this day, like many other days, is no different. She remembers picking up a clipboard, noting that she is supposed to work with the kitchen staff today. As she steps outside the dilapidated building with black windows, she glances—as she always does—at the rickety crib in a corner of the veranda, its wooden structure painted a colour that might have once been blue. Now, after years of use, it’s grey.

Still preoccupied with thoughts about kitchens and meals, Premila walks over to the crib and looks down. A baby looks up at her. A normal baby might have been flailing, kicking, howling, but this one looks tired. It’s a baby girl, no more than one month old. Premila has lifted tens of children out of this crib over the years to be able to judge the age. The traditional black spot to ward off evil is prominent on the baby’s cheek. She might have been abandoned, but not without a talisman.

And so another baby joins the ranks of Tamil Nadu’s cradle baby 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 by offering 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. 

The basic protocol is simple enough. Cradles are installed in 188 areas perceived to be accessible. Babies can be placed in the cradles—no questions asked—or handed over to the authorities.

In 2007, Dutch anthropologist Pien Bos wrote her Ph. D. dissertation—titled “Once a Mother: Relinquishment and Adoption from the Perspective of Unmarried Mothers in South India”—based on two years of fieldwork that she did in Tamil Nadu.

Witnessing the workings of the scheme in Dharmapuri, she writes: “Early the next morning, we arrive in Dharmapuri. One of the staff members contacts the people inside the reception centre and returns quickly with the message: ‘They have nine babies for us instead of seven.’ After some administrative work in another building, we return to this baby centre. Meanwhile, the two ayahs prepare the plastic cradles with cotton cloth. After finishing their preparations, they both leave the van to collect the nine babies. Within a couple of minutes, the ayahs return with the message: ‘We need to take ten babies, just now a grandmother arrived to leave her new-born granddaughter.’”


The cradle baby scheme stands alongside other government schemes to improve the lot of girl children in the state, including the Puratchi Thalaivi Dr Jayalalithaa Scheme for the Girl Child of 1992. Under this, a sum of money is deposited into a public fund for each girl who qualifies for the scheme. As of 2013, ₹50,000 will be deposited if the family has two girls and ₹25,000 if the family has only one, and the beneficiaries are given the amount with interest when they reach the age of 18. For the period 2001-2012, the government says 4.31 lakh girls have so far benefited from the scheme on which it has spent over ₹655.71 crore. One criterion for qualification is that one of the parents should have undergone sterilisation within a year of the child’s birth.

The basic protocol for the cradle baby scheme is simple enough. Cradles are installed in 188 areas perceived to be accessible, like temples, public health centres, welfare centres, anganwadi centres, government hospitals, and orphanages. Babies can be placed in the cradles—no questions asked—or handed over to the authorities. After the parents sign a surrender document, these children enter the state’s rehabilitation system, and are put up for adoption.

There are many reasons why parents may not want newborn girls: the ancient patriarchal bias against girls, poverty, children born out of wedlock, or physical disabilities. The Tamil Nadu government says 3,432 female and 660 male babies (a total of 4,092) have been rescued through this scheme from October 1992 to September 2012. According to an RTI petition filed by an NGO, 2,372 babies were abandoned/surrendered in Dharmapuri from 2001 to 2010. The number stands at 81 in Dindigul and 792 in Madurai and 967 in Salem for the period 1992-2010, 

Many babies die soon after being left, often due to poor health. Eighty-two babies died in Madurai in 10 years. Out of the 10 babies that Bos witnessed being collected by the orphanage, three died soon after.

The scheme is funded by the state government. In 2012-13 it spent ₹8.18 lakh, a sharp drop from the ₹14.92 lakh of the previous year. The scheme is administered by the department of Social Welfare and Nutritious Meal Programme. In addition, there’s a Japanese angle to the story.  Padma Seth in her book Infant Mortality and Maternal Mortality: Socio-economic Causes and Determinants writes that “the Consulate General of Japan came forward to fund the programme to a tune of ₹22,40,440 during March 1995. A building was constructed at the cost of ₹5.50 lakh and a jeep, an ambulance and an audiovisual van were purchased for bringing the children, educating the masses and propagating against the evils of female infanticide”.



nce a child is handed over, the state becomes its custodian. When a reception centre receives a child, a phone call is made to one of the licensed adoption centres, which collect the child and admit him or her into an orphanage or children’s home. The child is then put up for adoption. Differently-abled children are handed over to one of four specialised agencies; 89 such children have been sent to these specialised centres so far.

In the early days of the scheme, babies were generally dropped off at night, under cover of anonymity. Today, many of these babies are handed over directly to officials; a piece of paper stating that the baby is being surrendered is usually signed. Sometimes, the child’s mother comes alone with the child; in many cases, fathers and grandmothers and relatives come as well.

Shanmugapriya is one of the mothers who dropped off the child herself. Tall and gaunt with short hair—she recently had her head tonsured at the Murugan temple in Vadapalani in west Chennai—she is originally from Madurai. She says her story is the same story, no different from the scores of others just like her. The undertone of loss and bitterness is hard to miss despite her matter-of-fact speech.

She was about 24 when she gave birth to a girl in 2007, after years of trying for a child. Her husband ran a tea shop in Madurai, but soon had to close it down. He worked on construction sites when he could, and Shanmugapriya worked as a housemaid.

“I would go to three houses in the morning, from 6 a.m. onward, and then two more in the evening,” she says. “But it was never enough. You can earn between ₹500 and ₹1,000 per month per household. Even for that, every extra rupee is fought for.” The couple plunged deeper into poverty. The situation worsened when Shanmugapriya got pregnant.

 “We didn’t have enough to eat and we lived in one small room... adhuku melai (on top of that) doctor expenses started,” she says. When the baby was born—a long-limbed girl with bright eyes—Shanmugapriya’s husband had already told her they would have to give her away.

Exhausted from childbirth, she agreed. Someone had told them about the cradle scheme, so they took the baby to a government hospital two days later, and handed her over to a nurse.

“Some neighbours said we can just leave her on the road ... someone will find her and take her away, but I was frightened a dog would attack her. She was very small and not strong. She didn’t cry much so she might not have been found.” Shanmugapriya had already named her daughter Kala.

Shanmugapriya says that when she and her husband went back home, they fought bitterly over what they had just done.

“He said we didn’t have money, we didn’t have food, no job, so how could we keep a child,” she recalls, almost compulsively plaiting the tassels on the end of her sari. “I said she was still our baby. How can a mother give away a child? She’s still a mother. So I went back to the hospital without telling him, about seven or eight days later when he had gone to work. But the hospital said the baby had gone to an orphanage in Chennai. They wouldn’t tell me where or how she was. I begged them to bring her back but they told me to leave.”

Tracking these children is a difficult task, since adoption is usually shrouded in confidentiality. Research scholar Arjun Jehangir attempted to track down some of the scheme’s children . “I was politely asked to back off.

Shanmugapriya never saw her daughter again. She had no more children. Her husband died in 2008—she vaguely says it was either a heart attack or alcohol—so she got on a bus and came to Chennai. She didn’t know where she would go or what she would do, but she didn’t have anywhere else to go either.

Today, she works for a women’s welfare group near the SOS Village in Tambaram, Chennai. She lives with the group as well, weaving baskets which are later sold to a Chennai NGO. She never found out whether her baby was adopted, but she says that she hopes she is happy. “Maybe she even lives in one of those big apartments in the city,” she says wistfully.

I ask whether their decision would have been different if it had been a boy. Shanmugapriya stops plaiting the tassels. “Yes,” she says simply. “Because he could have grown up and then looked after me. It’s easy to be a boy.”



s schemes go, there is a curious lack of documentation on the numbers and details that make up the scheme. Officially, records are supposed to be maintained on the status of the child till she or he reaches the age of 18. However, in conversations, officials said that in practice, once the baby is handed over to an adoption centre, all record-keeping stops. Many officials interviewed for this story agreed, on condition of anonymity, that there is not a single complete record of a child from cradle to adoption.

“The adoption process is a longwinded one, and there is a great deal of bureaucracy and red tape involved,” says an official with the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare and Nutritious Meal Programme Department. “The exact number of cradle babies is maintained since it is important to determine the success of the scheme. However, these babies are not tracked once they go to various licensed orphanages. Adoptions happen, but the government does not record whether the child adopted was a cradle baby child.”

It’s difficult to find an answer why records are not maintained. The role of the state resembles that of a middleman: the child is handed over, and most contact is cut afterwards. Premila Joseph says there is little communication with state representatives about the children received under the scheme.

Tracking these children is a difficult task, since adoption is usually shrouded in confidentiality. Research scholar Arjun Jehangir attempted to track down some of the scheme’s children who had lived in a home on the outskirts of Chennai for a study on adoption in Tamil Nadu. “I was very politely asked to back off,” he says. “The cradle baby children who are on record are still minors, while the ones who have attained majority are largely untraceable. We will never really know how many managed to find adopted families, and how many of them did not. Even if they did, a lot of those stories aren’t part of government record.”

Stories might not be part of the record, but several do exist in unofficialese. In 2004, a baby was left at a reception centre in Salem, one of Tamil Nadu’s most notorious areas for female infanticide. She was two months old, healthy and strong, an implication that she was well cared for before she was given up.

The parents were married, but could not care for her because she was handicapped: a disability in one arm as a result of injury to the nerves from the spinal cord down the arm. It usually happens during the birth process, and her arm might have been fully paralysed in the first few months.

From a small-town existence in the heart of rural Tamil Nadu—with a female infanticide rate of 3,000 per year—she wound up moving over 14,000 kilometres away.



n 2003, Marie Anders was sitting across the seas in the United States, waiting for a baby to adopt. Marie had grown up in a family of four—two parents and an older brother—and initially wanted to become a teacher. Instead, she worked at a university for 21 years, managing the office for a research professor.

As a single woman, Marie was determined to provide a wonderful life for her adopted child. At that time, she had made the momentous decision not to adopt from within the US since she didn’t feel confident in the US system.

“One part of the system in the US that can be wonderful is that often birth mothers are able to choose who will adopt their baby. Potential adoptive families will write letters and sometimes make videos about themselves and their families, and the people can sometimes meet before a baby is born.

“This works wonderfully for many people, as the birthmothers feel confidence in the people that will raise her child, and the adoptive families can tell their child about their first mother. Another side of this, though, is that it can seem that people are ‘competing’ for a baby. The thing that I felt most confident about the system in India was that while married couples were given priority, potential adoptive families simply waited their turn. There was no competition.”

And so Marie waited.

In Theni, two-month-old Amala was in the care of an orphanage. The scheme operates with the network of licensed adoption agencies from the state government. These agencies receive recognition and certification. Once the babies are handed over, the government by and large cuts its link with that batch and leaves the rest to the agencies.

Amala’s status as a cradle baby put her directly up for adoption. In the meantime, Marie had been going through the usual levels involved with international adoptions—a home study to check her parenting philosophy, criminal background checks and health information, a visit from a social worker. Once a potential adopter is matched with a child available for adoption, the process begins on the Indian side: a dossier on the motivation to adopt, financial documentation, and a scrutiny of the child’s documents to check that the child has been cleared for international adoption and that he or she had been available to local families to adopt first.

Amala was 10 months old when Marie was matched with her. Marie had not known that Amala was a cradle baby, and she hadn’t heard of the scheme until then either. For Marie, the joy of finding her child was replaced with frustration at the waiting period that followed as bureaucracy took its course.

“At this point, the approval processes within India begin,” she says. “Everything is scrutinised and reviewed.  The adoption must be approved at several levels until the parents are awarded guardianship by the court, and then the child is issued a passport and visa.” Marie says the process took its own time, and the process between referral and travel was 16 months.

“This time of waiting can be near-torture,” she says today. “I had become Amala's mother in my heart, but I could not be with her. I had to wait for the appropriate process to be complete. I was grateful to receive regular photos and a few video clips.” When a year had passed, Marie undertook the long journey to India—a trip she had made twice before, which is why she had decided to adopt from India in the first place—hoping that the final processes would wrap up and she could take her child home.



doption in India has been fraught with negative publicity for years. In 1999, a pastor named Peter Subbaiah was arrested in Andhra Pradesh for procuring children from tribal colonies and selling them to international parents. Another Andhra Pradesh-based NGO called Action for Social Development was also found to have sold at least 75 children to adoptive parents in Europe, the US, and Australia.

Adoption laws since then have tightened. The Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) under the Ministry of Women and Child Development states that for inter-country adoptions, the authorised foreign adoption agency or concerned government department of the receiving country must “keep CARA ... informed about the progress of placement through quarterly post-placement reports during the first year and half-yearly reports during the second year of the child’s arrival in the receiving country”.

The enforcement of this rule is a shade of grey. Madhavi Kutty runs a Christian orphanage near Erode which is a licensed agency under the cradle baby scheme. She is now in her late sixties, with an unlined face and grey hair pulled severely back into a tidy bun. Kutty has seen dozens of cradle babies pass through the orphanage, alongside other children, and admits that she has no idea how most of them are faring.

 “The babies come to us in all kinds of conditions; some are underweight, underfed, with various disabilities and marks on their body. Some are in good health but have been given up due to the worst kind of poverty. We see so many children like that so it is difficult to even remember most of them,” Kutty says.

She remembers a cradle baby placed in her care at the age of six months. “Two weeks later, the mother came and begged us to give the baby back. However, the baby’s grandmother dragged her away and asked us to keep it.”

Kutty says a lot of people assume that when babies are given up for adoption, a major reason is because the mother is unmarried and therefore afraid to raise the child out of wedlock. “This isn’t the case in Tamil Nadu,” she says. “The parents are usual married with strong family systems. They just either don’t want a girl child, or are unable to raise her.” Kutty agrees that infanticide is more common than foeticide, since most families are too poor to afford ultrasounds even though many illegal clinics are cropping up, offering the service cheap.

I ask whether the government follows through in maintaining its record of the status of cradle babies until they achieve majority. Kutty sounds nervous. “The standard answer is to ask the government,” she says. “We don’t know. We just try to do our job in our own small way.”



arie came to India in 2005, hoping to return with her baby. Amala was then 23 months old and Marie had already been granted guardianship of her, and had seen photos and video clips of Amala sent by the orphanage. It took one more trip before she could tick the last box in the adoption process, and take her back to the US with her.

“The process was delayed simply because the officials in one final office (I don’t want to say which) refused to do their jobs,” she explains. “They delayed the process of many children simply because they were suspicious of adoption. It didn’t matter to them that the officials responsible for adoptions had approved it at many levels. It didn’t matter that I was my daughter’s legal guardian. Officials from other offices would exclaim that this office was breaking the law, but that nothing could be done. Thankfully, the national-level officials of this problem office learned of the situation. After that, the process went smoothly and Amala and others could join their new families.”

Marie says she had known Amala for a few months by the time she brought her home, so the transition was smoother than she had feared. “By the time we left the orphanage, she didn’t yet understand what a mother was, but she knew she could trust me. This was very helpful.  She had also learned to understand English fairly well from English-speaking volunteers at the orphanage as well as myself during my time in India. Our biggest frustration (for both her and me) was that she still needed to gain expressive language to communicate as well as a two-year-old is expected to.”

Amala is now ten and in the fourth grade at school, where her favourite subjects are reading and writing. She plays soccer and basketball, and swims, and wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. Amala’s disability still affects her daily life, but she is very good with trying new things and compensating for her weakness: basketball is a big example. Amala is very clear that she is sad that is not with her birth family. However, she’s very happy with her adopted family: her home, her friends, her life, and her three cats: Mango, Poonai and Josie.

Amala went back to India once after she was adopted, and is still in contact with other children from her orphanage. There are annual reunions where the families of the children—over 19 of them—get together and try and maintain a connection to each other and to their Indian origins.

To her, the other children aren’t siblings or cousins, but something more. They are cribmates.



n 2007, the Campaign Against Sex Selective Abortion (CASSA) sent a position paper to various national and regional government bodies to protest the cradle baby scheme. “By introducing (the scheme), the government is formally inviting parents to abandon their unwanted, newly born girl infants,” the paper read. “The scheme reiterates the belief system of the patriarchal society that the female infants can be unwanted. The state legitimises the abandonment of girl child alone and thus foster [sic] patriarchy and patriarchal ideology.”

In the 20 years of its existence, this is one constant thread of criticism. R. Ganapathy, a former volunteer, says the scheme fundamentally fails in its objective of protecting the girl child. “A daughter is more vulnerable to rejection by her family because there is another option,” he says. “Female infanticide rates are still as high as they were. Even lower rates don’t imply that the mentality has changed.”

Ganapathy points to Rajeswari Sunder Rajan’s book, The Scandal of the State: Women, Law and Citizenship in Postcolonial India. Sunder Rajan writes: “There is also predictable moral resistance to the scheme among some officials because of the ‘irresponsibility’ they feel it is bound to encourage … According to a recent media account of the scheme’s (non) functioning, few cradles are any longer evident in the designated spots (most of them were found locked up in storage in a building donated by a Japanese voluntary agency); officials are vague or shifty about the operation; most people in the area seem not to have any knowledge about it, a largely self-defeating fact if the cradles were meant to be used.”

“We are told babies are rehabilitated, but where are they?” Ganapathy says. “I have heard of many cases of birth mothers returning to the orphanages, begging to have their babies back, but they are not given any details. They will never know if their children were eventually adopted or living in a children’s home.”

A 2008 Tehelka story quoted a source at the Madurai-based Society for Integrated Rural Development as saying the infant mortality rate in Tamil Nadu is 31, but it is 162 for cradle babies. “Infant mortality is a major concern in the scheme, especially in the early days,” says Paul Doraiswamy, a Madurai-based activist who works with local NGOs on awareness workshops. “A number of the babies died. There is no effort by the government to escort the scheme with awareness campaigns on why they should love and take care of their girl children.”

Doraiswamy also criticises the scheme for making no attempt to counsel parents. “Why is this not an option? Why aren’t parents offered money to help them raise the children? Why are they not told where their baby goes, and if the baby is even adopted? We are told that more than 3,500 children have passed through cradles. Where are they?”

I point out that though there may be no counselling under this scheme, it happens consistently at different levels through anganwadi and NGO workers. Has he has attempted to initiate a counselling process for parents of cradle babies?

“Why should we have to enter into this process?” Doraiswamy replies. “It is the job of the government, since they are the ones to have started this.”

But Premila Joseph defends the scheme. Regardless of whether or not it makes the girl child vulnerable, she says it is a fact that female infanticide is a major problem in these districts. “They are saying that it is better if a child is killed rather than given a chance to live, simply because the premise of the scheme is not the best,” she says.

Marie agrees. “We must fight the problem from all directions. As we fight these battles, the children who need permanent families are waiting. Each and every one of these children has a right to a permanent, loving family. I believe that the cradle baby scheme is one way to help.”


The reality of abandonment is something society shuts its eyes against, says B. Rajarathinam, a personal assistant (general) at the collector’s office in Salem. “The government is already under immense pressure to solve the problem of female infanticide, and this is an important interim measure,” he says.

I ask him about follow-up, citing the 2006 case of a five-year-old girl in Salem who, having been put up for adoption through the cradle baby scheme, was tortured with burns and cuts by her adopted mother.

“That was an isolated case,” he tells me. “That is part of a bigger problem, which is the leaks in the adoption system in the country. That case cannot be extended into an attack on the cradle baby scheme. The Social Welfare department is building records to ensure that the children are accounted for. We will have them very soon.”

V. Pandian, the assistant to the section superintendent at the department office, parrots the same line about the collection of records being in the pipeline. “What is important is the number of children saved. We are presently doing the follow-up.”

Banumathy Selvi, a former employee with the department who now heads a women’s welfare organisation in Villipuram, Tamil Nadu, says it is unfair to point fingers at the bureaucracy. “The problem with the cradle baby scheme is that it was abandoned very soon after it began when the government changed, before being revived again. It only got importance after early 2000. As a result, the groundwork has been slow. Budget allocations are still slim but that may also be because the scheme is becoming successful. We cannot say that the scheme by itself has combated female infanticide. Instead, we can safely say that it has helped give many girls a chance of life.”

Infanticide numbers over the decade could provide an idea of the impact of various government schemes that target girl children. The infant mortality rate (IMR)—the number of infant deaths in a year per 1,000 live births—is a strong indicator of female infanticide. In 2001, Dharmapuri had an IMR of 44.6 for females and 24.1 for males, with 16,785 female live births and 749 female infant deaths. In 2008, the female and male IMR was 21.4 and 22.9 respectively, with a total of 29,763 female live births 636 female deaths.

In Salem, the female and male IMR was 47.4 and 39.2 respectively with a total of 28,593 female live births and 1,354 female infant deaths in 2001. The 2008 IMRs are 15.9 for both sexes, and the total number of female infant deaths was 455 with 28,635 female live births. 

The latest census results show that the child sex ratio has increased in Tamil Nadu from 942 in 2001 to 946 females per 1,000 males in 2011. In Salem district, the ratio increased from 851 to 917 in the same period, with the figures being 826 and 911, respectively, in Dharmapuri district.

“You are saying that a baby is now in the US; that is a huge personal achievement of the scheme,” says Banumathy. “There are many shortcomings—lack of record, no follow-up, and so on—but that does not mean that it hasn’t changed someone’s life.”

Despite repeated attempts, none of the other officials, including the Secretary of the Department, agreed to be interviewed for this story.


The success stories of cradle babies are few and far in between, thanks to the lack of public record, but like Marie and Amala, they do exist. In 1992, Akshaya was part of the first batch of 14 cradle babies handed over to the SOS Children’s Village in Tambaram, Chennai. In 2010, she became the first cradle baby to join a professional course by starting classes at an engineering college.

In 2000, six-month-old Kavya was handed over to an anganwadi centre in Madurai. Her father was a labourer who already had four other children, ranging in age from three to 12 years. Kavya’s mother had died in childbirth, so the first home she remembers is the orphanage in Madurai.

Like everyone else, Kavya was put up for adoption but the process was slow, since there was a virtual glut of baby girls for adoption in India at the time. She spent the first five years of her life at the orphanage. Her memories are fairly simple: tired adults and fluid friendships with children who were always coming or going. 

“Government uncles would come and talk to us sometimes, and we would get ice cream,” she remembers. “It was usually vanilla ice cream though sometimes we would get strawberry.”

Kavya was eventually adopted by Anjan and Shyla Vashist, a couple based in Delhi. In 2005, all Shyla Vashist’s memories revolve around hospitals. Then 34, she and her husband had been trying desperately to have a baby. “I must have met over ten gynaecologists, tried every single treatment possible, got advice from thousands of well-meaning strangers on how to precipitate the process,” she says now. “It was exhausting.”

Their decision to adopt came naturally after this, but after they were matched with Kavya, seven months passed before they brought her home to their flat in Noida. “There is first an attempt to find an adoptive family in the same state,” Shyla explains. “We had to wait for that to be cleared.”

At 14, Kavya is in the ninth standard and is, according to her mother, a confident and cheerful teenager who excels at English and science. Kavya knows about her cradle baby background, and says she is quite familiar with the details surrounding the scheme, thanks to the Internet.

“I am not in touch with anyone,” she tells me over the telephone. “I might make a trip back sometime. I have to decide.”

Shyla says she knows that day is coming, but also that she has been preparing for it for quite some time. “We are her life now, but that is still her life too,” she says.

(Names of the adoptive parents and the cradle babies have been changed.)