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Numbers can tell terrifying stories. Numbers that don’t exist can be equally terrifying. Take this little fact: Neither the census nor any other Union government study seems to have tried to record the number of orphans or destitute children in the country. In 2007, a Unicef study concluded there are about 25 million orphaned children. According to a study conducted by the Mumbai-based non-profit Catalysts for Social Action (CSA), an estimated 500,000 of them are in childcare institutions. The rest are “outside the system". Let your imagination run wild—nobody knows where these millions of children are.

Of those 500,000 children, 3,264 found homes through adoption that year. The Central Adoption Resource Authority (Cara), an autonomous body under the Union ministry of women and child development, has recorded 3,677 adoptions for 2015-16, including in-country and inter-country. Even if, hypothetically, the number of orphaned and destitute children has dropped by 25% in the last nine years, 3,677 is an abysmal figure. The highest number of adoptions in the last 16 years was recorded in the January 2011-March 2012 period: 6,593. In the last four years, then, the number has fallen.

In 2011, that bright year, I met my daughter at an adoption agency in Maharashtra. The meeting was done the old way.

Under the new guidelines that Union minister for women and child development, Maneka Gandhi, announced in 2015, the process of adoption is centralized and digital, and prospective parents have to choose from a few photographs mailed by Cara to their inboxes, along with details of age and some basic physical attributes. This is a step after the home study report is uploaded on the system. This is a detailed report submitted by a representative of Cara or an adoption agency after visiting the home of prospective parents to assess if the home environment is conducive for a child or not. Then they meet the chosen child and if everything works out, proceed with the final paperwork.

We got the first glimpse of our five-month-old baby in an ill-fitting dress, wrapped in a soft blanket, when one of the agency’s staff members put her in my arms and said, “We want you to meet somebody." The decision to adopt her was instant, instinctive, and based purely on emotion. We had met the adoption agency staff a few times earlier, to be interviewed and counselled. By the time we met her, they knew about our professions, our lifestyle and beliefs, even our pet names.

The new guidelines have replaced that human intelligence with the Cara software. The software matches parents with a child. It is mandatory for adoption agencies to upload the details of all children who can be adopted under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, which came into effect this January. Parents have to register online with Cara, provide details such as the latest medical reports and an affidavit stating that if the parents die, their married brother or sister or closest kin will take responsibility for the child. Parents have the choice of three states from where they want to adopt, and the software is supposed to consider those preferences and provide options.

The new system has streamlined the process for inter-country adoption. It makes adoption as easy or difficult for single parents and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) couples as for married couples—one of the reasons that reportedly led to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, pioneers in this field in India, to stop adoptions altogether.

The new guidelines have made adoption agencies accountable. Earlier, agencies could bend rules, demand more money than the legal processes required. “We welcome the new guidelines," says Vipul Jain, founder of CSA, which works with other organizations in facilitating the rehabilitation and adoption of children in orphanages. Jain, who is an adoptive parent himself, says the new guidelines have made it possible for parents to be connected to agencies in smaller places, and the process has become transparent. “But much more needs to be done. The big step is for agencies to work closely with orphanages and children’s homes. Orphanages and children’s homes need to be empowered. If at least 20,000-50,000 abandoned children find homes every year, we are talking of a change."

The decision to adopt a child is a hard, emotional one, but the biggest hurdle remains awareness about adoption itself, and being able to transcend barriers...- Vipul Jain

Late last year, the Federation of Adoption Agencies (Maharashtra) filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay high court, questioning the revised guidelines. Sunil Arora, founder of the non-profit Bal Asha Trust and president of the federation, says, “The new system disempowers rural adoption homes and alienates prospective parents who are digitally challenged. Couples have come to us asking us to register on their behalf, willing to feed their life’s records into the Cara system through strangers. The rural adoption homes need at least a year of hand-holding through the online process before they can work efficiently." There is no provision for counselling prospective and new parents, adds Arora.

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Bengaluru-based Deviprasad Choudhury and his wife Suchitra Patra, both 38 and Infosys employees, registered with Cara in December. They specified that they wanted a female child between two and four years of age, from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra. After monitoring their turn in the waiting list for a month, they changed their choice of place to Odisha. About two weeks later, they received a mail with the photographs and details of children. After filling their choice, they were connected to the Nehru Seva Sangh in Odisha’s Bhawanipatna district. “There was some discrepancy between what we got in our inbox and what our future daughter was. The gap is probably because the agency itself is digitally not capable enough to file the correct details that match every child. Technically, they can improve a lot. But the legal process which we had to complete within days of meeting her was efficient and fast," says Choudhury. Dhaani, now two years and nine months, came home on 5 February. “She did not speak a word for two days after we returned from Bhawanipatna. On the third day, she spoke a word, and has not stopped talking ever since," says Choudhury, over the phone.

In Kolkata, 41-year-old Saheli Mitra, a journalist, has been less lucky. Parents to a biological son who is now 13, she and her husband applied for adoption six years ago. Last year, after the new guidelines came into place, they had to register online with Cara. “This time we had to fill in many more details, like the number of rooms at our home, recent medical reports for hepatitis, besides HIV," Mitra says. They wanted a child between two and four years of age. Within 14 days, they got the mail. Their preference was from Raipur, not in the age bracket they had specified.

Prospective parents can change their preferences thrice, so they decided not to meet the child. “I called up their helpline and asked why there was such a complete mismatch of what we wanted and what we were given. They had vague explanations. The computer is basically doing all the work." The Mitras are now back at the bottom of the waiting list.

Mitra’s experience holds clues to why there has been a drop in the number of adoptions since the new guidelines have been implemented: the complete lack of human intelligence in facilitating a choice that ultimately rests on emotion; the lack of counselling through the process; and, of course, being a country that is not yet ready and educated enough to embrace and be comfortable with digital solutions.

“The decision to adopt a child is a hard, emotional one, but the biggest hurdle remains awareness about adoption itself, and being able to transcend barriers of genes, class, caste. Without a change in mindsets, digitization can’t find homes for orphaned and abandoned children," says CSA’s Jain.

The owner of the agency where we met our daughter told us that a married couple from Mumbai once met them, asking if they could get a “fair, upper-caste, male child". After a year of counselling and being in touch with the agency, they found their daughter—a three-year-old, dark-skinned child; today, she is a self-aware, confident 16-year-old.

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