Last month in Tamil Nadu, a two-year-old girl was found alone in a government bus. The crying toddler was handed over to the Dharmapuri police station which traced her mother with the help of CCTV footage. The mother said that after a quarrel with her husband she had tried to abandon their child in the bus.
In another incident in July, a two-week-old boy was found abandoned in a closed tea stall in very inclement weather in New Town, 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. He was rescued by the Technocity police station after a person alerted the police. The boy was given immediate medical aid. However, his parents could not be located.
Reports of newborn children being found abandoned in garbage piles, dustbins, in bushes by the roadside or places of religious worship are not uncommon in India. Data by the National Crime Records Bureau show that no less than 709 criminal cases of ‘exposure and abandonment of child under twelve years’ under Section 317 of the Indian Penal Code were registered in the year 2021. It is pertinent to note that no case is registered when a child is surrendered to the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) constituted under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (or the JJ Act).
Abandonment versus surrender of a child
The moot question is this: If the child’s biological parents or the guardian do not want to or are unfit to raise the child, why do they abandon the child especially when there are so many people in India willing to adopt children? Especially when this number is more than the number of children available legally free for adoption? According to the portal of the Central Adoption Resource Authority, there were 2,991 in-country adoptions and 414 inter-country adoptions in 2021-22. Similarly, according to the 118th report on Review of Guardianship and Adoption Laws, presented to the Rajya Sabha on August 8, 2022), as on December 16, 2021, there were 2,430 children declared legally free for adoption for 26,734 adoptive parents-in-waiting.
An abandoned child means a child who is deserted by his biological or adoptive parents or guardians, while a surrendered child is relinquished on account of physical, emotional and social factors beyond their control. The JJ Act, which has an overriding effect on other laws in force, provides that no first information report shall be registered against any biological parent in the process of inquiry relating to an abandoned and surrendered child. The purpose of this provision is to ensure that all efforts are made to trace the parents or guardians of the child without initiating any criminal action.
It is always advisable to surrender a child rather than abandon him if the conditions to retain the child are beyond the control of parents or guardian. Abandonment endangers the child’s life. Surrender before the CWC is a guarantee that the child will be taken care of till he or she attains majority or is adopted by a fit and willing parent.
As most of the reasons for child abandonment are an unwanted pregnancy, breakdown of a relationship, lower socio-economic status, either or both parents being drug addicts or alcoholics, a child can be considered eligible for surrender and declared so after the prescribed process of inquiry and counselling. Further, the disclosure of the identity of such children is prohibited and all reports related to the child are to be treated confidential by the CWC. Hence, there is nothing the parents need to fear about. Also, the surrender of a child does not entail any criminal action.
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A liberal interpretation
The Supreme Court of India has just given a liberal interpretation to the law on termination of pregnancy when it comes to single and unmarried women. Section 3(2)(b) Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971 was amended in 2021 and the words “married woman” replaced with “any woman” and “husband” with “partner”. However, the corresponding rule (Rule 3B of the MTP Rules, 2003), was not amended, leaving scope for different interpretations by the lower courts. In view of this, the Supreme Court, in X vs The Principal Secretary Health and Family Welfare Department and Another (2022), held, while hearing an appeal, that the parliamentary intent was clearly not to confine the beneficial provisions only to a situation involving a matrimonial relationship. The Court passed an interim order to allow an unmarried woman petitioner to abort her pregnancy of 24 weeks arising out of a failed live-in relationship, subject to the Medical Board’s recommendations. The Court said that there was no basis to deny unmarried women the right to medically terminate her pregnancy, when the same right was available to other categories of women (divorcees, widows, minors, disabled and mentally-ill women and survivors of sexual assault or rape). With the top court’s clarification and the amended law, it is anticipated that unmarried women will be free of mental trauma.
Awareness is the key
One of the major reasons for the abandonment of children is a lack of awareness about the law on the surrender of unwanted children. Since it is believed that most cases of unwanted pregnancies are known to Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), daais and anganwadi workers, who have a strong network in villages, educating and sensitising them may reduce incidents of abandonment. The staff of nursing homes should also be included in such a programme.
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Although, the surrender deed is to be executed before the CWC, a parent or guardian may approach any police officer, public servant, childline services, recognised non-governmental organisations, voluntary organisation, child welfare officer or probation officer, social worker or public-spirited person, nurse or doctor or management of a nursing home, hospital or maternity home when wanting to surrender a child. It shall be the duty of such an authority or officer to produce the child before the CWC within 24 hours. Non-reporting of abandonment within the prescribed time is a criminal offence. Therefore, wide publicity needs to be given to these provisions of the JJ Act so that no child is deserted, and parents, guardians and functionaries who are mandated to report any abandonment do not face a risk.
R.K. Vij is a former Special Director General of Police of Chhattisgarh. The views expressed are personal