Saturday, February 04, 2012

India: India, Norway resolve child care dispute. But there are questions that will not go away

By Shastri Ramachandaran*
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

NEW DELHI (IDN) - Both Norway and India have lessons to learn as the conflict over the Norwegian authorities putting two children of an Indian couple in foster care gets resolved to New Delhi's "satisfaction". But there are also questions that will not go away.

Some facts are clear. In May 2011, Barnevernet, Norway's official child protection unit, took away – on grounds of parental neglect – the two children of Sagarika and Anurup Bhattacharya and put them in foster care. The three-year-old son, Abhigyan, was taken into custody as his behaviour in school was found to be erratic.

The daughter, one year-old Aishwarya, was put into care because, among other things, she was sleeping in the same bed as her parents and being fed by hand. Barnevernet found Sagarika to be in depression and the children emotionally disconnected from the parents. Anurup, a geoscientist, lived with his family in Stavanger.

The parents have been waging a legal battle since their children were committed to Norwegian state care. The struggle to "retrieve" the children acquired urgency with the family's visa due to expire in March. Without a visa, the children – whom Barnevernet planned to put in care with separate families until they turned 18 – would have been "lost" to them, and their battle would have become more complicated.

The couple's extended family in India, including the grandparents, approached eminent political figures from Brinda Karat of Communist Party-Marxist (CPI-M) and external affairs minister SM Krishna to President Pratibha Patil to "rescue" the children. As a result, the children are to be restored but to the paternal uncle – so that the Norwegian principle of kids not being returned to negligent parents is upheld technically.

This gives rise to a number of questions. First, why did the parents and the Indian authorities wait until the children were taken away? For months before the kids went into care, the process would have been on in various fora, such as the county court. Even before that, Barnevernet would have been building up a case through neighbours, education and health authorities, and others along with planned and surprise visits. These should have left the Bhattacharyas in no doubt that their children would be taken away. Why did they not thwart the process in the early stages? Why did matters have to reach a stage where it required the president to express concern and the foreign minister to intervene?

This act of Barnevernet was not a calculated insult to India. Neither was it a cultural or bureaucratic offensive against Indians in Norway. Therefore, why did it have to be dealt with as an issue of pride involving Indian cultural sensibilities? Did it need the president and the external affairs minister's intervention for dealing with a mere child protection agency? If so, Barnevernet's clout is awesome. If not, India, its government and institutions have been belittled.

That brings us to the lessons. This is not the first time Barnevernet is in the eye of a storm. It is a powerful agency, and there are agencies like it in other Western countries too, which strike fear in people because of the way they use their clout and reduce their own governments to helplessness. It has been criticised mainly on two counts. One is cultural insensitivity.

In many cases, where children were painfully separated from biological parents, Barnevernet has been flayed for being ignorant of other cultures. Norwegians who have worked with Barnevernet and foster children agree that the agency needs to be educated about other cultures. This is a lesson that India must insist on Barnevernet learning while asking employers of Indians in Norway to orientate their staff to local rules and regulations. This can save Indians abroad a lot of agony and avert needless action.

Two, Barnevernet has been accused of being over-eager to place minority (foreign) children in foster care as Norwegian families are paid handsomely for this job. Ethnic Norwegians, with an eye on income from foster care and ignorant of foreign family cultures, often play into the hands of Barnevernet. This tendency should be checked before it creates more problems for NRIs (non-resident Indians) in Norway.

There are many prominent Norwegians known for their affinity to India and things Indian. Some of them take pride in being PIOs (persons of Indian origin). It is surprising that neither New Delhi nor Oslo availed of their expertise to prevent avoidable stress in the interests of both countries and their people. They could be useful to sensitise Barnevernet and help NRIs to become aware of and adapt to the Norwegian way of life.

*The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator based in New Delhi, and a member of IDN-InDepthNews editorial board. A version of this article appeared in DNA – Daily News and Analysis. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 03, 2012]