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Published Sunday November 7th, 2010 at 11:11pm

Original Article by Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Aarti would like to meet her birth mother. It can be a secret meeting without the birth mother's family involved, if that is what the birth mother wishes. Aarti only wants to meet her birth mother -- no obligation..." These three short sentences say it all. Urgent, hesitant, hopeful and understanding, the message is almost apologetic.

It is on an adoption website and is one of a dozen such appeals on the Net from Indians who were adopted by foreigners. All of them are on a root search. This means adoptees looking for their biological mother. A few have photographs tacked on, perhaps in the hope that some family resemblance will jog memory somewhere. Others provide little details such as "the only recognizable difference I had was ear tags, extra skin near my earlobes, at birth", or "I have a brown birthmark on my right forearm, above my wrist". Many admit they are unsure about how old they are, as in "American doctors say I am about 33 years old."

Searching for one's biological parents is a complicated affair in India. There is little help to be had from anyone. Arun Dohle is an adoptee, who realized the hard way how difficult it was to get hold of adoption records. He was adopted from a Pune clinic by a German couple in 1973. In 1993, he made an innocuous request to the agency to see his adoption files. The request was turned down. After a legal struggle that lasted 17 years, Dohle's wish was finally granted by the Supreme Court in August.

He was one of the lucky few. Generally, people like Dohle find themselves stymied by bureaucratic hurdles. Orphanages and adoption centres may offer a sympathetic ear but don't provide much information. Dohle recounts what he was told. "They say your mother was unmarried and by Indian law we can't give out information". He adds that it generally takes a while for the penny to drop.

When direct appeals for information are rebuffed, those who can afford to consult detectives. But here again, the rate of success is low. "Orphanages don't give out any information," rues Kunwar Vikram Singh, who runs Lances network and is president of the Association of Private Detectives and Investigators. "One has to develop sources within the orphanage but that turns out to be time consuming and expensive," he says.

A new set of draft guidelines have been prepared by the Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA). Even though provision for root search has been included in these guidelines, it's not certain whether things will ever improve. A contradiction within this draft will make it tough. While it accepts that the adopted child should be given "as much information as possible" by agencies, and that "in case of unwed mothers, the same shall be done after obtaining their willingness," the guidelines threaten to de-register any recognized agency that reveals "confidential information on the background of adoptees... to any outside agency or individual." Activists fear that heavy-duty confidentiality clauses in the root search programme will make it easier for suspect agencies to cover up information on trafficking.

The root search may initially be facilitated by root trips, which are organized tours for groups of adoptees of the countries they've been adopted from. The itinerary often includes orphanage visits. For instance, the American Ties Program organizes "adoptive family homeland journeys" for adoptees from 14 countries including India, China and Russia. The concept began 20 years ago when Becca Piper, then a new adoptive parent met other foster families. "As an international guide, I met families who had adopted children from different parts of the world. They would ask me to consider putting together heritage programmes in the countries their children were born. I knew what they needed was not only travel arrangements, but also a comprehensive programme that addresses identity building for international adoptees," she says. India Ties started in 1999 and brings 30 to 40 people to India every year.

Meanwhile, Dohle, along with Anjali Pawar, director of Pune-based anti-trafficking NGO Sakhi, has been helping adoptees reunite with their biological mothers. They have facilitated about 10 reunions in the last four years. To make it easier for the people involved, Pawar first does an internet search for background details, checks documents and sometimes even translates them into English. She also tracks the affidavit — where and when was the stamp paper bought. "Most adoptees we've interacted with are poor. They work and save for years to come to India," she says.

In the case of one 23-year-old girl, Pawar had no more than her birth name and half an address to work with. Using the surname, Pawar zeroed in on a remote area in the Konkan region as the place the girl originally belonged. The search didn't yield much. On a second trip, a compounder at a veterinary clinic told her about a traumatized young woman he had heard about. Finally, Pawar tracked the mother down after travelling five villages, visiting several clinics and questioning innumerable families. The mother had since married and five more children.

Often enough, it's an agonizingly difficult search. "If they don't have any documents or other information, I can't help. I'm an anti-trafficking activist, so agencies don't want to talk. It's not pure root search," she explains. The Pawar-Dohle duo puts CARA in the dock, citing several trafficking cases.

CARA's reason for discouraging root search is that there might be an "un-wed mother" at the end of it and she would be embarrassed to be found. "These kids grow up abroad and don't understand our culture. Unwed mothers can't meet them, half the time they don't even give a correct address," says CARA chairman J K Mittal.

But adoptees aren't as clueless as Mittal seems to suggest. A woman adopted from Mumbai as a child by a British couple in the 1960s, writes online: "For 41 years, I have thought about my mother and it is my dearest wish to reunite with her.... I understand this may be difficult... I do not wish to upset her life in any way. I can be very discreet, but I need to know my roots..." One particularly poignant message reads: "Born end of December 1973 or at the beginning of January 1974, found on a bench at Pune railway station on an early morning in January. Was brought to orphanage. I don't want to harm anybody, only wish to know what my mother looks like and tell her that I am fine."

The Net is trying to help adoptees discover a shared past. Natessa Romano, 24, started IMH Babies in 2006 for a friend. Her group brings together children adopted from International Mission of Hope, Kolkata. Romano herself was adopted by an American family in Vermont. "I think what most people are looking for from the Group is to meet other adoptees and to hear about what their lives were like so long ago. One of the difficult, yet special things about being adopted, is there is no one in your new family, [who] can tell you what you were like at a week old. You meet people who have a key to a past you couldn't access," says Romano.

Hope indeed in a bleak scenario.