Boatman Gullu Chaudhary and several other people were on the banks of the Ganges near the Dadri Ghat neighbourhood of Ghazipur on June 16 when they heard cries coming from a wooden box floating in the holy river. It was Chaudhary who went into the water to retrieve the box, saving the infant girl who was left inside.
The rescue was caught on video and shared on Twitter the same day:
#गाजीपुर@UPGovt करेगी नवजात कन्या गंगा का पालन पोषण, @CMOfficeUP @myogiadityanath के निर्देश पर पवित्र माँ गंगा की गोद में मिली बच्ची कि पालन चिल्ड्रेन होम में सरकारी खर्चे पर होगा, बच्ची को बचाने वाले नाविक को सरकारी आवास और सुविधाओं का भी एलान । @AdminGhazipur @shalabhmani pic.twitter.com/UI8vrJvzPA
— Awanish Vidyarthi (@awanishvidyarth) June 16, 2021
Inside the box was red cloth, wrapped around the newborn child, as well as pictures of Hindu deities and some sticks of incense. The box also contained the child’s astrological birth chart, indicating her date of birth, and a piece of paper with her name: Ganga, the Hindi word for the Ganges River.
Chaudhary initially took the infant home, intending to adopt her, but local authorities picked her up and took her to a shelter for women and children, and then to hospital, where she was deemed to be in good health. The Uttar Pradesh government has said that it will take financial responsibility for the child’s safe upbringing and education.
Meanwhile, the boatman, Gullu Chaudhary, has been honoured by local officials. The government of Uttar Pradesh announced that he would be given a boat, in order to continue his livelihood independently, as well as other welfare benefits according to his eligibility.
गंगा की धारा से गंगा की बेटी गंगा को बचाने वाले गुल्लू चौधरी को सम्मानित करती नपा अध्यक्ष सरिता अग्रवाल व पूर्व नपा अध्यक्ष विनोद अग्रवाल जी। pic.twitter.com/0mbiwuta8d
— Kartik Gupta (@kartik4bjp) June 17, 2021
Police have opened an investigation into the infant’s abandonment. Although child abandonment is punishable by law in India, it is not an uncommon phenomenon, particularly for girls, who are more often victims of gender discrimination. The Indian population’s skewed gender ratio – around 900-930 females to 1,000 males – can be attributed to sex-selective abortions, infanticide and neglect.
‘News like this keeps coming out in India, every few weeks or even multiple times a week’
Smriti Gupta is the co-founder and CEO of the NGO Where Are India’s Children? (WAIC) which aims to help the country’s most vulnerable abandoned and orphaned children enter the legal adoption system. According to Gupta, the case of baby Ganga is unique, but the phenomenon of abandoned infants is not:
Unfortunately, news like this keeps coming out in India, every few weeks or even multiple times a week. The interesting thing about this is that it seemed like a very formal affair, somebody took the time to wrap the child in a certain way, place the child in a box in a certain way, provide perhaps a religious context to it. Normally, the stories we hear are about children being left in garbage bins, in bathrooms or in streets.
Child abandonment happens across a huge strata of society: we have heard of cases where somebody had a child out of an affair, or there could be cases where unfortunately somebody didn’t want a girl child, there could be cases where people can’t support additional children. What’s most unfortunate about it is that you do not need to abandon children in India today. India has a law that allows parents to anonymously and legally surrender their child at an adoption agency. But the awareness of this law is so low that it results in these very cruel abandonment cases.
India’s abandoned infants don’t always meet the same fate as baby Ganga. In 2020, 65 abandoned babies were found in Uttar Pradesh, but only 32 of them were still alive. Officials have said that lockdowns have made it less likely for abandoned infants to be found in time. And those abandoned children who survive can end up in child trafficking networks, or spend their lives in shelters.
‘The best-case scenario is that the child is found quickly’
First and foremost, an abandoned child would immediately have some physical and mental impacts because of the abandonment. The physical impact would be weather, animals, infections. And the mental impact would be a child left alone, for hours or days, crying and no one coming to aid the child. These are going to be long-term impacts. The second challenge is: will the abandoned child make it into the legal adoption pool? They could end up in children’s homes or shelters that don’t put children in the legal adoption network, so the child would essentially be in an institution for life. And then after they turn 18 years old, they are on their own.
You have to put children in shelter temporarily, but we see the same problem repeating where there is no communication and no will to bring children into the legal adoption pool. We have seen news articles about various well-known shelters in India, branded international shelters, taking in abandoned or orphaned children, claiming that they’ll keep them forever.
The best-case scenario is that the child is found quickly, the child is taken to a hospital for assessment, and the child is brought into the legal adoption system.
The Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to the plight of orphans and abandoned children in India. According to the country’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, more than 30,000 children have lost one or both parents, or were abandoned since April 2020. Of these 30,000 children, 274 were found abandoned. However, the true number of children abandoned in India each year is impossible to estimate.
For Gupta, the government and local authorities are not doing enough to direct these abandoned or orphaned children, including the girl abandoned in the Ganges, into adoption networks:
Various stakeholders keep talking about putting children in shelters instead of bringing them into the legal adoption process. But if the child is put in some random children’s home or shelter, and everyone starts claiming ‘Oh we will pay for the child,’ after that five minutes of noise around it, everyone will go away and the child will be left in a shelter. For me, that’s the worst-case scenario.