GWALIOR (India) • A police raid on a private hospital in Gwalior, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, has blown the lid off a racket to sell abandoned newborn babies in the black market.
Police fear staff at Palash Hospital were selling babies for as little as 100,000 rupees (S$2,000) each, with agents convincing unmarried mothers to give birth at the facility and then abandon the infants.
"Their agents meticulously went about searching for pregnant women who wanted to abort, but instead were convinced to give birth," said Police Superintendent Kumar Prateek, who led last month's raid and investigated the case.
"They were unwed women, vulnerable. And the hospital exploited them, offering them secrecy in return for the newborn babies," he said, referring to the stigma attached to unmarried mothers in socially conservative India.
Police said they have traced five babies born at the now-shuttered Palash Hospital - located just across the road from the government hospital in Gwalior - and sold illegally to couples in different cities.
But investigators fear the total number could be much higher, with hospital records showing more than 700 babies were delivered there in recent years.
Their agents meticulously went about searching for pregnant women who wanted to abort... They were unwed women, vulnerable. And the hospital exploited them, offering them secrecy in return for the newborn babies.
POLICE SUPERINTENDENT KUMAR PRATEEK, referring to the stigma attached to unmarried mothers in India.
Experts said stealing and selling babies to couples is not uncommon in India, even directly from hospitals, where doctors and nurses are sometimes involved in handing them over to criminal syndicates.
But investigators said the latest case was unusual in that agents targeted pregnant women who agreed to check into the facility and go through with the scam.
Police were tipped off by a disgruntled former worker, leading to the raid and arrest of two senior hospital officials on charges including slavery, as police try to piece together details of the racket.
Activists said black-market adoptions are common in a country with high levels of trafficking of women and children, although there are no official figures.
"We have examples of newborn babies being fraudulently declared dead and later sold for adoption. These are well-oiled networks spread across the country," said Ms Anjali Pawar, who works for international non-governmental organisation Against Child Trafficking.
The adoption racket comes to light days after an organ-trafficking ring operating at one of India's top hospitals was busted.
The criminal gang allegedly lured poor people into parting with their kidneys for a pittance and then sold them for huge profits.
After the police arrested five people, a spokesman for Apollo Hospital, where the trafficking ring was active, said it had unwittingly removed the kidneys of the organ- trafficking victims, believing they were donating them to relatives.
The gang used forged documents to pretend that the victims were relatives of needy transplant recipients. Commercial trade in organs is illegal in India and transplant donations to non-relatives must be approved by a special committee.