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V.BALACHANDRAN
POLICE & STATE

V. Balachandran is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat.

Norway can learn from Oprah’s visit to India

Oprah Winfrey

wo contrasting examples of sensitivity to underdeveloped nations' cultural and family milieu were found this month. One was during talk show queen Oprah Winfrey's visit to India. The other was about two Indian infants who were taken away from their biological parents by the Norwegian child protection unit "Barnevenet". Although the infants were removed in May 2011, the heart wrenching case came to our attention in January 2012 through our visual media.

Since May the devastated parents have been appealing to various authorities to get their children back. "Aishwarya" was just five months old and was being fed breast milk when she was wrenched away from her mother. Abhigyan, her two-and-a-half-year-old brother was taken away from the kindergarten. Circumstances behind this drastic action are not clear. What crime did the young parents commit that this cruel action of keeping their children in foster homes for the next 18 years had to be taken? Did Barnevenet, through its ignorance of Indian social behaviour, suspect that the children were not theirs? Child trafficking is increasing in Norway, which faces a falling population growth of only .334%. In 2008, Norway reported 102 child trafficking cases. If so, did Barnevenet make further enquiries? Press reports say that Barnevenet found Abhigyan's behaviour in school to be "erratic" and found that both children slept with their parents and were fed by hand. They also found an "emotional disconnect with the parents". So they recommended that the infants should be separated from their parents.

Thanks to Indian government intervention the infants are to be handed over to the custody of their relatives. Did the Norwegian laws take into account the mental trauma such a small baby will face when separated from her mother and removed from her social surroundings, despite Barnevenet being tasked to allow children to "grow up in safe and secure surroundings"? Is this condition breached if the infants sleep in their parents' room?

As against this we saw Oprah Winfrey not falling into the silk trap of the "page three glitterati", who would have liked to restrict her movements to their five-star cocoons that include "Bollywood" dances, their version of Indian culture. She boldly stirred out into the congested and "dirty slums" of Mumbai, finding "calm" in that slovenliness and disorder, appreciating how a hardworking father was raising his children in his tiny 6X6 feet room and admiring his bright young girl's resolve to better her family's fortunes with her education. She said, "The biggest thing I would take way is that people don't just talk religion here, they live it."

o doubt all such social laws in Western countries are meant to prevent child abuse. As in Norway, other Western countries also allow local society members "with worries about a child's development" to call child care centres to alert them. Quite often such locals do not appreciate the cultural differences between them and the migrants. I know of a case in which the young parents of an Indian child residing in the United States were reported upon by the locals on the mistaken impression that they were "punishing" the child. All they had done was to "admonish" him for his adamant refusal to wear seatbelts. The local Child Care Centre took summary action and handed him over to a foster home. The parents had to fight an expensive legal battle for six months to get their child back.

It is not clear what role the Indian embassy in Norway played in this case. From an official statement issued from New Delhi on 22 January, it seems that the embassy was pursuing the case only from 5 January. An official visited the foster home only on 12 January. That would mean that they took cognizance of this only after the storm broke in India. Was our embassy in Oslo not informed about the incident or did they think that it was not worth pursuing? I am asking this question because another embassy in Europe was nowhere to be seen to help our crew ­numbering 202 out of the 1,200 rescued from Costa Concordia, the luxury liner which ran aground in Italy. They alleged that the embassy did not respond to their plight for two days. Such stories are, unfortunately, quite common.

 
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