NEW DELHI • At a now-shuttered adoption agency on the fringes of India's capital, kidnapped toddlers and newborns were being sold for about US$8,000 (S$10,800) each, no questions asked.
After stumping up cash, prospective parents would inspect the bewildered children at the "Fastrack International" agency and take them home the same day, according to police who raided the premises last month.
"If you wanted a child, one would appear on your lap," Joint Commissioner Dependra Pathak of New Delhi police said after the successful sting.
A ledger seized during the raid detailed how 23 children had been sold in just a few months and another 76 transactions were being negotiated, some of them involving babies kidnapped from hospitals in other states with the help of doctors and nurses.
Illegal adoption is a thriving business in India, where more than 100,000 children are reported missing every year - 15 every hour, according to government figures, but activists insist the figures are much higher. Although many are given up by desperately poor parents in the hope of a better life, others are snatched from hospitals, railway stations and big cities and channelled to couples.
Experts say prospective parents are turning to the black market because of long delays, overcautious officials and complex rules of legally adopting in a country known for its frustrating levels of red tape.
"Why would you wait two years for a baby when you can pay someone to get you one straight away?" said Ms Lorraine Campos, assistant director of Palna, one of Delhi's oldest adoption agencies and orphanages. "Criminals have realised there is money to be made... And there's a nexus involving officials."
Ms Campos has noticed a drop in recent years in the number of abandoned babies being brought to Palna, a non-profit agency caring for some 70 children. She fears some are being handed to criminals.
Thousands of children are thought orphaned and abandoned in India, although there are no official figures. But only 4,000 were legally adopted in the year to March, according to government data, down from 6,000 in 2012.
Ms Maneka Gandhi, Minister for Women and Child Development, plans to overhaul the "complicated" system to boost those numbers, saying parents waiting years for children is "shameful".
She is working to simplify the application process, including a national online tracking system and a campaign to encourage more parents to use it.
"Adopting them (children) legally is such a nuisance, so if we make it easier, then people won't go around pinching babies," she said.
All agencies will have to register with a central authority and the children under their care will be included on a national database.
Mr Pramod Kumar Soni and his wife Pinki welcome the overhaul. In their two-year wait for a baby, they said they were stonewalled by unresponsive officials.
After 12 years of medical tests and fertility treatment, the couple had turned to an adoption agency near their home before giving up in despair, then finally finding success at Palna where they are in the process of adopting a two-month- old boy.