“She is too weak and needs special care,” the nurse said, patting the girl who has been born underweight and premature. “I pray a nice couple adopts her and raises her like their own.”
Police suspect the staff at a private hospital in the city — Palash Hospital — were selling babies for as little as Rs 1 lakh ($1,500).
The babies were mostly born to unwed mothers, who had been convinced by agents to give birth at the facility and then abandon them. The police had been tipped off by a former disgruntled worker, which led to a raid and the arrest of two senior hospital officials.
“Their agents meticulously went about searching for pregnant woman who wanted to abort the foetus but were convinced to give birth,” senior police officer Kumar Prateek, who led the raid last month and is now investigating the case, told AFP.
“They were unwed woman, vulnerable. And the hospital exploited them, offering them secrecy in return for the newborns,” he said, referring to the stigma attached to unmarried mothers in the country’s conservative society.
Police say they have traced five babies born at the Palash hospital — located just across the road from the government hospital in Gwalior and now closed. They had been sold illegally to couples in different cities.
But investigators fear the total number could be much higher.
Hospital records show that more than 700 babies had been delivered there in the recent years.
Stealing and selling babies to couples is not uncommon — even in hospitals, where doctors and nurses are sometimes involved in handing them over to criminal syndicates. But it is unusual to conduct the scam through agents, who target pregnant women to agree to check into the facility.
“Unlike female foeticide and illegal abortions, which are major problems for us, the live births happening at the hospital never raised any suspicion,” said Anoop Kamthan, Gwalior’s chief medical officer. “The mothers were willingly abandoning their babies.”
Taposh Gupta, hospital director and one of those accused, insists he is innocent of any wrongdoing. “My manager was in control of the administration and I am now hearing some eight to nine months ago, they sold one or two babies,” Mr Gupta, who is in police custody, told AFP.
The director says he, too, adopted one of the babies born at the hospital, but stressed that he went through legal channels.
Activists say black market adoptions are common in the country, which has high levels of trafficking of women and children, although there are no official figures.
“We have examples of newborns being fraudulently declared dead and later sold for adoption. These are well-oiled networks spread across the country,” said Anjali Pawar, who works for an international non-profit, Against Child Trafficking.
Some parents turn to black market because of the lengthy and frustrating process of legal adoption that has long involved endless red tape, according to experts.
One couple say they are devastated after they found that their adopted baby is one of those involved in the scandal. The couple is in danger of losing custody as police attempt to track down the baby’s birth mother and consider sending the infant to an orphanage.
“We were raising the child with love and care. Just like we would have raised our own,” he said, adding that they opted for adoption after five years of trying to conceive.
They said they thought they were acting legally. “We followed all the procedures and adopted the newborn. They took some money for documentation and it all looked clean,” the father said on condition of anonymity.
Back at the intensive care unit in Gwalior, nurses are closely monitoring the one-month-old after another baby, a boy, from the raided hospital, died of unknown causes. Once strong enough, she too will be sent to an orphanage.