Nomita Chandy has helped abandoned children find homes. Ashraya, the institution she heads in Bengaluru, also runs a residential school for children of migrant workers. Chandy is keen now to work towards revamping the adoption system.

Three-and-a-half decades ago a group of spirited young women started Ashraya, a Bangalore-based centre for homeless and abandoned children. Working out of a modest rented space, doing much of the paperwork from a friend's kitchen, and selling greeting cards to create funds, the women could not have foreseen the scale to which their organisation would grow.

A formidable group of projects now run under the larger umbrella of Ashraya, one of the most reputed institutes in the country targeted at children and women: from finding adoptive families for children with disability to running safe crèches for the children of construction workers.

Pilot projects

And at the helm of the initiative, since its very inception, and the woman who steered Ashraya into its present course, Nomita Chandy was awarded the Padma Shri this year for social work. The projects grew “quite organically” from each other, says Chandy, director of Ashraya. And by her own admission, most of Ashraya's initiatives are “pilot projects” with no precedent anywhere else in the country.

One such is a residential school for children of migrant workers located 100 km from Bengaluru. Close to 350 children — many of them children of construction workers — study in classes starting in LKG to Std. X (following a Kannada medium SSLC syllubus). “Neelbagh,” as it is named, has been recognised as a model for rural education.

The residential school grew, she explains, out of Ashraya's crèche programme for the children of construction workers in Bengaluru. “We found how these bright children shuttle from city to city without the opportunity of education. Girl children, in particular, are married young because parents fear for their safety. But we also realised how vested migrant workers are in educating their children. A residential school was absolutely vital for them.”

As rewarding as her work has been, some hurdles have been so insurmountable as to make her reconsider the practicality of some of her projects. Workers at adoption centre for instance, she says, are compelled to spend an inordinate amount of time negotiating a bureaucratic web of clearances and licenses for every adoption. Starting with the Child Welfare Committee to Central Adoption Resource Agency and even the passport office, the delays are endless and adoptive parents have to wait a minimum of two years for the adoption process to come through.

Chandy wants now to work towards revamping the adoption system in India at the level of policy and law. “The system is so mind-bogglingly bureaucratised that it is impossible for an honest agency to function. Instead the adoption programme expanding in the country, it is being smothered to death,” she says.

Red tape apart, she feels that society's prejudices are hard to shake off. “Sometimes I feel the world has stood still for 35 years. Foreign adoptions are still seen with suspicion. What people do not realise is that certain children just do not find homes in India: children with disability, older children, or siblings who want to stay together. It is through international adoptions that we can assure them of a happy future.”

Happy endings

“I need happy endings,” says Nomita recounting the story of Minda, a girl born without limbs and adopted from Ashraya by an American. Now 20 years old Minda is a budding artist. “It means the world to see how grateful Minda is for life; or to know that Shalini (born visually blind) has passed out of the Trinity College of Music.”

Ashraya works also with the Karnataka Government in rehabilitating boys in conflict with the law. And Tara, a residential centre, extends services to battered, abused and abandoned women while also assisting them to keep their children rather than relinquish them.