Against the backdrop of a poor sex ratio in Rajasthan, Mahesh Ashram in Udaipur has been saving the lives of abandoned baby girls and rehabilitating them

Much before the eye-opening first episode of Aamir Khan's chat show Satyamev Jayate, which brought the reality of sex-selective abortions to our drawing rooms and triggered a national debate, an initiative in Rajasthan's Udaipur has been doing its bit to save newborn girls.

In August 2006, within a span of two weeks, two female foetuses were reported to be found floating in the city’s famed Fatehsagar Lake. Almost simultaneously, another similar incident was reported from the neighbouring district of Chittorgarh. Those incidents changed the life of a city businessman forever.

An inquiry into Rajasthan’s child sex ratio revealed that there were only 909 girls in the 0-6 age group for every 1,000 boys, according to the 2001 Census. Unfortunately, this number has only declined over the last decade — the 2011 Census reports just 883 girls for 1,000 boys.

Where have all those missing girls gone? What can be done to turn this dismal situation around? Devendra Agarwal had no answers to these questions that were troubling him. But he was determined to do something to salvage the situation.

Once a successful marketing professional, Mr. Agarwal recalls: “I was moved by the visuals of foetuses floating on the water. I thought if someone could take care of the unwanted girls, they would neither be killed nor abandoned or dumped in hedges and dustbins.”

He started out by putting up a cradle outside his home in the city’s busy Surajpole area. Within a week, he had three baby girls in his home. He smiles, “We were looking for a sister for my two sons, and suddenly we had three.”

The three girl child gave a new direction to Mr. Agarwal’s life plans. When the Udaipur Child Welfare Committee (CWC) came to know that he had abandoned newborns in his home, it decided to take them away, saying that they needed to be put up for adoption. When he tried to stop the CWC, legal hassles followed. “I fought the case right up to the Supreme Court where, too, I lost. I couldn’t save these girls. In the meantime, I was charged with contempt by the Rajasthan High Court and arrest warrants were issued against me twice.”

Those were tough times for him and his family but that was when he decided that saving newborn girls was going to be his new calling. Mr. Agarwal set up an organisation, the Maa Bhagwati Vikas Sansthan, under which the Mahesh Ashram was set up. Built with a loan of Rs. 23 lakh, this home based in Udaipur’s Bhuwada locality, today has 19 abandoned baby girls who are getting quality professional care.

Says Mr. Agarwal: “I realise that a lot of women are compelled to give up their daughters because of family and social pressures. In fact, many a time, the mother is not even aware that the girl she gave birth to has been taken away from the hospital bed and dumped. We want to save such lives. All we say is ‘Don’t throw them, give them to us’.”

The Mahesh Ashram has put up two cradles — one outside the busy MB Hospital and the other at the ashram’s doorstep. In the five years the ashram has been functional, Mr. Agarwal and his team have been able to save 67 girls. “Unfortunately, we lost six girls, who were very sick when we found them. One of them was thrown from a running car. She was bleeding profusely when my team found her. We rushed her to the hospital, where three units of blood were given, but she couldn’t survive. Another one was left under a running tap in a hospital’s bathroom on a cold winter night. She was on ventilator support for nine hours before she succumbed,” Mr. Agarwal recounts with sadness.

To give the children the best of healthcare, the ashram has acquired photo-therapy machines, warmers and oxygenators besides a dedicated staff of 20 ayahs (local nurses) and one general nurse and midwife (GNM).

Saving the little ones, however, is not Mr. Agarwal’s only mission. The Mahesh Ashram has also taken up the responsibility of finding loving, stable homes for them. Says Mr. Agarwal, “I failed in my first attempt because I had no knowledge of what the law said regarding the adoption of abandoned babies. But once we started the ashram, we are more organised in our approach.” He formed a childcare committee, comprising senior government officials — an IPS officer, an IRS officer, the Vice-Chancellor of a university, a chartered accountant and Mr. Agarwal himself on the board — to conduct the ashram’s adoption-related activities.

In fact, in 2009, Mahesh Ashram became a specialised adoption agency after getting a licence from the Social Justice and Empowerment Department of the Government of Rajasthan. To date, they have found homes for 41 babies, although Mr. Agarwal admits that it’s not easy to find homes for them because people in the State are still fixated on boys.