By: Neeta Lal

A decision by the Missionaries of Charity, the Roman Catholic order founded by Mother Teresa, to shut down 13 of its 16 adoption services across India rather than adhere to new government rules that allow single parents to adopt has kicked off wider debate over the country’s adoption practices as a whole and the order’s in particular.    

Social activists fear that in the battle between the Catholic order and the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development ministry, which has argued that the agencies should stay open, the victims will be thousands of hapless destitute Indian children who will be denied the warmth and care of a good home. There are 20 million destitute children in India. According to the Central Adoption Resource Authority of India, only 0.04 percent of abandoned children in India are adopted through officially recognized agencies.

The “Guidelines Governing Adoption of Children, 2015” were issued by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development in July, allowing single parents (separated, divorced, unwed mothers) eligible to adopt through online registration. “Any prospective adoptive parent, irrespective of his marital status and whether or not he has his own biological son or daughter, can adopt a child,” the guidelines state. 

The Missionaries of Charity has long been under fire for steering adoptions mostly to Catholic families. Despite being selected for sainthood shortly after she died in 1997, both Mother Teresa and the order she founded have come under considerable international criticism. She was sometimes accused of trying to convert the poor by stealth.  The late atheist writer Christopher Hitchens was so indignant that he wrote an entire book about her, titled “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” describing her organization as a cult that promoted suffering and didn’t help those in need.  Hitchens quoted her words on poverty in a 1981 press conference as proving her intention was not to help people. She was asked: “Do you teach the poor to endure their lot?” She replied: “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”

“The new guidelines hurt our conscience,” the nun in charge of the Missionaries’ home in North Delhi told local reporters. “They are certainly not for religious people like us. … What if the single parent who we give our baby [to] turns out to be gay or lesbian? What security or moral upbringing will these children get? Our rules only allow married couples to adopt.”

The adoption process is now online and centralized under the Central Adoption Resource Authority. It has also made it mandatory for all prospective parents to register with the national adoption agency. Previously, adoption agencies and homes across the country followed their own adoption rules which made it harder for some parents to adopt because there was no national monitoring mechanism.

Analysts acknowledge that the absence of national monitoring of adoption procedures – till the new tenets were formalized—sustained a thriving black market ecosystem for adoption, child trafficking and child abuse. Lack of specialized adoption resource centers in states only made things worse.

“The old rules also hampered scaling up adoptions. As a result, last year, CARA could place only 4,362 children for adoption,” said an official at Palna, New Delhi’s oldest state adoption center. For a country with nearly 700 districts, there are just 278 officially recognized adoption agencies including those closed by the Missionaries of Charity. 

The ministry’s target of 20,000 adoptions per year under the new norms will involve easing bureaucratic bottlenecks to adoptions, bringing more child care institutions under the CARA’s ambit, and curbing child trafficking.