Lt. Col. G. Tungnung and his wife Vandana adopted their daughter Shivani two years after their marriage, in 2003. The couple, now posted in Mumbai, said they have never felt the child “is not ours”. But because Tungnung is a Christian, their sentiment had no legal backing until a few years ago.
In fact, the Tungnungs are believed to be the first couple to test the Juvenile Justice Act (JJA), 2000, which overturned a century-old law that Muslims, Christians, Jews and Parsis could only become legal guardians of children in India, not parents. The sweeping Act intended to protect young and abandoned children.
For many families, the distinction is a technicality, but lawyers have long argued that it matters, especially in cases of property and asset succession. Legal guardians also only have rights over children until they turn 21.
Seven years after its passage, the law is shrouded in confusion and legal delays in most parts of the country. In Delhi, for example, not a single adoption has taken place under JJA.
Lawyers said this is because the Act did not clarify which court will decide on adoption cases filed by parents belonging to the minority groups; all parents seeking to adopt in India must obtain court-permission. An amendment passed in August of last year sought to clarify which courts would award custody of children.
“In many parts of the country, juvenile courts were clearing the adoption cases,” said Jagdeep Kishore, a Delhi high court lawyer, who regularly files adoption lawsuits. “But the amendment in the law passed in 2006 makes it clear that district courts will settle these cases,” Kishore added.
Juvenile courts only handle children’s cases, while district judges oversee all types. Acting on this late amendment made last year, Kishore has filed several cases on behalf of non-Hindu parents asking for full adoption rights. He said the first judgment on these cases is expected around May, depending on judges’ schedules.
At the time of adopting Shivani, Tungnung was posted in Haryana, a state that adoption officials and lawyers said had allowed juvenile courts to award custody. Vandana, a Hindu, has postponed having a biological child as she feels no pressing need to do so.
Adoption agencies feel that the new law is a welcome change, also because it streamlines the adoption process and asks for less documentation from parents; the Tungnungs’ case took three months, for example. The new Act can also be used by any set of parents, as it allows adoption irrespective of religion.
In Sonepat, Haryana, 11 children have been adopted since 2003 under JJA, mostly by Hindu parents. “The cases were settled quickly,” said Mohan Godbole, who heads Balgram Rai, an orphanage and adoption centre in Sonepat. But Godbole said that after the amendment to the law, not a single case has moved forward although six such cases are pending.
Across the country, in Mizoram, 41-year-old David and his wife adopted Janet under the Act more than two years ago. He feels that parents of all religions should have equal rights on adoption. “The parents will love the child anyway, but if they are just guardians, they will not be secure. They might feel something is not complete,” said David, who would not give his last name.
The couple says they were childless for a long time before deciding to become parents through adoption. Mizoram has seen 30 such adoptions so far, with almost all children being adopted by Christian couples. “We are doing very well,” said Lal Dikkimi, who coordinates the work of all adoption centres in Mizoram on behalf of the government.
But, elsewhere in India, couples complain that a lot of adoption agencies are not even aware of the changes in law. Vandana, who toured a number of agencies in Delhi before adopting Shivani, found that many were ignorant about the new law, not even mentioning it in their publicity material.
The adoptive mother says friends and strangers alike often ask her for adoption advice, in the absence of other sources. “Adoption agencies are not sure if the new Act has come into being,” she said.