SALEM, India, Dec. 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Other than the brightly painted pink walls, there is little cheer in the sterile, sparsely furnished nursery rooms of the Life Line Trust orphanage.
Wailing newborn baby girls lie in a single row of metal cribs, waving their tiny limbs. Little girls crawl around on the bare, tiled floors, dragging teddy bears. Female toddlers sit on plastic rockers, gazing up at visitors.
These unwanted infant girls in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India are considered the fortunate ones.
They are India’s "Cradle Babies," products of a government project that permits parents to give their unwanted baby girls anonymously to the state, saving them from possible death in a region where daughters are seen as a burden and where their murder is a common reality.
"There is a very high incidence of female infanticide in these parts," said A. Devaki, a government child protection officer in the district of Salem, one of the worst-afflicted areas. (In parts of southern India, it is common practice for people to use the initial of their first name together with their surname for identification.)
"Often babies are found in ditches and garbage pits. Some are alive, others are dead. Just last week, we found a newborn baby girl barely breathing in a dustbin at the local bus stand.
She added that a lack of education, the low status of girls and widespread poverty were “the main factors”. “Parents are poor farm workers and can’t afford girls due to dowry. One girl is OK, but a second or third will likely end up being killed ... That’s why we introduced the Cradle Baby Scheme."
Started in 1992, the project runs in dusty towns and mud-and-brick villages in all 32 districts of Tamil Nadu including Salem, Dharmapuri and Madurai. It allows parents to leave their unwanted baby girls in dozens of empty cradles placed in hospitals, welfare centers and government offices.
At the beginning, the parents would secretly leave the babies in the cribs. These days, people are more open and parents simply hand over their babies to social welfare officers. The children are then sent to registered orphanages such as the Life Line Trust where they are put up for adoption.
"The Cradle Baby Scheme is a good thing," said R. Umamangeshwari, 42, as she sat next to her husband, a businessman in the textile industry, with their newly adopted 1-year-old daughter, Janani.
After 10 years of trying for a child, the couple approached the Life Line Trust orphanage and within a year, after government welfare officers had carried out various checks, they were deemed suitable adoptive parents and given custody of Janani.
"There are many infertile couples who want children but then there are others that do not," Umamangeshwari said. "This scheme is helping people. Words can't explain how much joy this little girl gives us."
Since the Cradle Baby programme started more than two decades ago, poverty-stricken parents, as well as single mothers, have abandoned more than 3,700 children, mostly girls.
More than 3,600 of them have been adopted by childless, middle-class couples in Tamil Nadu, government officials said. Infants who are not adopted, often boys and girls who are physically or mentally disabled, are eventually sent to special homes run by the state, the officials added.
But while the project has been praised for potentially saving the lives of thousands of Indian girls, human rights activists have criticized it, accusing authorities of encouraging the abandonment of girls and promoting the low status of women in this largely patriarchal society.
MILK LACED WITH POISON
In much of India, and a number of other countries including Pakistan and China, a preference for male children is built into cultural mores.
Palaniamma, 40, was sitting outside her mud-and-thatch home in the village of Krishnapuram, in the Dharmapuri district, recalling how her mother took away her newborn daughter and put her in the Cradle Baby Scheme more than 11 years ago.
“I had three daughters already, so when my fourth was born, my mother took her away, saying the financial cost of another girl was going to be too much for us to bear,” she said. Days later, she convinced her family to get her daughter back. The infant is now a schoolgirl. “I am glad I refused to give her up,” Palaniamma said. ‘‘Whatever difficulties I’ll face, I thought, it’s better to bring up my own child than desert her.”
Activists and government officials say the social and financial pressures associated with dowries are so great that parents have been aborting female fetuses after discovering their gender through ultrasound examinations, despite the fact that the practice is illegal.
A 2011 study in The Lancet, a British medical journal, found that up to 12 million Indian girls had been aborted over the past three decades. Other parents kill infants soon after birth. Many girls die from preventable diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhea - sidelined by their parents in favour of their male siblings when it comes to healthcare and nutrition, experts said.
This has led to alarmingly skewed child gender ratios. The number of girls under six years old has been plummeting for the last five decades. There were only 919 girls to every 1,000 boys in 2011 compared with 976 in 1961, according to the Census of India.
“I had initially thought it was primarily female feticide, even though I suspected that a large number of girls were getting killed after birth,” said Rita Banerji, the founder of the @50millionmissin campaign focused on the declining numbers of females in India.
“But what has come as a shock to even me is that most of the girls that go ‘missing’ do so after birth,” Banerji said. “I think it means that we, India and the world, are looking on as the genocide of a human group continues to escalate unchallenged, and unabated.”
In districts like Salem, communities like the Vanniyar people are known to practice infanticide more than feticide, often because they cannot afford the illegal ultrasound tests that are growing in popularity in many parts of India.
There are no official figures on how many girls have been killed across the state, as the crime is hidden and often supported by the local community. But both government officials and activists say at least one or two cases of babies being abandoned or found dead are reported every month.
In June, local media reported the arrest of a father of four girls in the district of Dharmapuri. He had killed his 22-day- old daughter by feeding her poisoned milk, then burying her corpse in a ditch.
Officials say the Cradle Baby program has been an unparalleled success, improving gender ratios in the districts where the project is active. For example, in 1991, Salem had the lowest number of girls compared with boys in the entire country, with just 849 girls to every 1,000 boys. Two decades on, there are now 916 girls. In Dharmapuri, the figure has risen to 913 from 869.
Rights activists say the improved ratio is largely a result of down to greater awareness and advocacy work, and improved family planning, rather than a result of the project. They say the project has failed to tackle the root causes of female infanticide by promoting the abandonment of girls and allowing parents to shift the responsibility for caring for their daughters to the state. As a result, they say, the killing of baby girls has not stopped.
“The government is legitimizing the dumping of girls,’’ said M. Shankar, a team leader with the Development Education and Environment Protection Society, a Dharmapuri-based charity that works on gender rights issues. “They are saying, ‘It’s okay if you don’t want a girl baby. We will take care of it for you.’ Girls are still being killed. Authorities should be working on supporting families which are expecting babies with counseling and immediate financial support so they can look after girls as soon as they’re born.”