Smaller cities in India, such as Bhopal and Indore in Madhya Pradesh, are frequented by childless couples from other parts of India and even abroad.
Unable to bear children for various reasons, such couples travel to these cities with hope. Bhopal and Indore have certainly gained popularity as a result of an increasing number of women agreeing to surrogacy (carrying another couple's embryo to full term), the many specialized Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) clinics, and the comparatively affordable treatment.
When Bhopal residents Rajesh Shrivastava, 41, and his wife, Usha, 37, were unable to conceive after 12 years of marriage, they decided to go in for ART (this includes techniques such as In-Vitro Fertilization) and surrogacy. The couple visited the ART centre run by Dr Dinesh and Dr Shefali Jain in Indore.
"Usha had suffered six miscarriages in 12 years. Initially, the idea of a surrogate did not appeal to them. But they agreed when one of their relatives came forward," reveals Dr Shefali Jain. This was two years ago. Now, Rajesh and Usha are proud parents of twin daughters. The treatment cost the couple just Rs 150,000 (US$1=Rs 39.90).
Apart from the domestic rush (the Jains alone attend to around six surrogate queries a month), a large number of couples from abroad also travel to Bhopal and Indore to fulfill their desire for a child. Several American, Russian and British women are duly registered with the Bhopal Test Tube Baby Centre for the procedure. Often, couples have to wait for as long as eight months to a year for their turn.
Their reasons for coming to India are varied. For some, the treatment is far too expensive in their own country; for others, their national laws do not permit surrogacy. Recently, a 37-year-old Russian came to Bhopal as the expense for surrogacy is prohibitive in her country - between Rs 15,00,000 and 20,00,000 - as compared to the Rs 200,000 cost in Bhopal.
Dr Randhir Singh, Director, Bhopal Test Tube Baby Centre, elaborates, "Women source information about the availability of surrogate mothers in Bhopal over the Internet and then contact us. In foreign countries, surrogate mothers are not easy to find. Therefore, the interest in India."
Even as an increasing number of childless couples from overseas come to India, legal experts express their reservations. Many foresee hurdles after the child is born and caution that surrogacy should be carefully considered.
According to senior advocate Kirti Gupta, "At present, it is not difficult to have a baby through surrogacy in India because there is no law to control or regulate it. The technique is cheap, when compared to other countries, and surrogate mothers here charge comparatively less for the services."
As there are several clinics now that perform such services - gauged by the number of advertisements in the local media as well as on the Internet - it is easy to select a clinic. However, the real problem arises after the birth of the baby. In India, in the absence of any clear laws on the issue so far, foreigners are unable to get legal assistance when it comes to taking their child back to their home country.
Childless couples in India, too, must consider some issues. For example, whose name will be mentioned as parents on the birth certificate of the newborn or what should be done in case the surrogate mother refuses to hand over the child?
To lay such doubts to rest, clinics that provide ART facilities take recourse to the guidelines set by the Indian Council for Medical Research that state that the surrogate mother has to sign a contract with the childless couple. But even then, counter lawyers, it is not clear whether such a contract has any legal sanctity.
Doctors take their own precautionary measures. Dr Dinesh Jain says, "We allow a woman to become a surrogate only after we have fully checked her credentials and if we trust her. We also ensure that the child born is handed over to the childless couple."
In Indore, which has a population of 30,00,000, many women responded to an advertisement seeking surrogate mothers, placed in a leading Hindi daily. Within 24 hours of the advertisement having appeared, a dozen women had evinced an interest. Surprisingly, none enquired about the couple. Money was the overriding concern.
Women who are willing to undergo the procedure come from lower middle class backgrounds, are married, and are in need of money. So much so that, often, childless couples negotiate a better price as a result of the competition. Shweta Khanna, 35, from Indore was willing to be a surrogate mother. Initially, she asked for Rs 100,000. However, when another woman offered to do the same for Rs 75,000, Shweta had to settle for Rs 50,000. "I have been a surrogate mother before. This time I'll have no problem... my husband is also agreeable," she says. Most women insist on anonymity for fear of social stigma.
But amidst all the doubts and societal taboos, the number of childless couples wishing to have a child through this technique is on the rise. It is estimated that in Indore, which has 11 ART centres, around 200 childless couples have been treated over a period of three years.