SALEM, India, Dec 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Unwanted infant girls in the sterile, sparsely furnished nursery rooms of the Life Line Trust orphanage in Tamil Nadu state, southern India, are considered the lucky ones.
They are India's "Cradle Babies" - products of a government project that permits parents to give unwanted baby girls anonymously to the state, saving them from possible death in a region where daughters are seen as a burden and where their murder is a common reality.
"Often babies are found in ditches and garbage pits. Some are alive, others are dead," said A. Devaki, a government child protection officer in the Salem district, one of the worst-afflicted areas.
"Just last week, we found a newborn baby girl barely breathing in a dustbin at the local bus stand."
She added that a lack of education, the low status of girls and widespread poverty were the main factors why girl babies were killed or dumped with little chance of survival.
"One girl is okay, but a second or third will likely end up being killed. That's why we introduced the Cradle Baby Scheme."
But while the project has been praised for potentially saving the lives of thousands of Indian girls, human rights activists have criticized it, accusing authorities of encouraging the abandonment of girls and promoting the low status of women in this largely patriarchal society.
Started in 1992, the project runs in dusty towns and mud-and-brick villages across Tamil Nadu. It allows parents to leave unwanted baby girls in dozens of empty cradles in hospitals, welfare centers and government offices.
At the beginning, parents would secretly leave their babies in the cribs. These days, they are more open and simply hand infants to welfare officers.
The children are then sent to registered orphanages like the Life Line Trust where they are put up for adoption.
"Words can't explain how much joy this little girl gives us," said R. Umamangeshwari, 42, sitting next to her husband, a businessman in the textile industry, with their newly adopted one-year-old daughter, Janani.
After 10 years of trying for a child, the couple approached the orphanage and within a year, after government welfare officers carried out checks, they were deemed suitable adoptive parents and given custody of Janani.
Since the Cradle Baby program began, poverty-stricken parents and single mothers have handed-in over 3,700 children, mostly girls. More than 3,600 of them have been adopted by childless, middle-class couples in Tamil Nadu, officials said.
Palaniamma, 40, recalled how her mother took away her newborn daughter and put her in the scheme 11 years ago. Days later, she convinced her family to get her daughter back.
"I am glad I refused to give her up," Palaniamma said outside her mud-and-thatch home in Krishnapuram village. "Whatever difficulties I'll face, I thought, it's better to bring up my own child than desert her."
Activists and officials say financial pressures associated with dowries are so great that parents have been aborting female fetuses for decades after discovering their gender through ultrasound examinations, despite the practice being illegal.
A 2011 study in The Lancet medical journal found up to 12 million Indian girls had been aborted in the past three decades.
Other parents kill girls or fail to save them from preventable diseases, leading to alarmingly skewed child gender ratios. There were 919 girls to every 1,000 boys in 2011 compared with 976 in 1961, says the Census of India.
In Salem, communities like the Vanniyar people practice infanticide more than feticide, often because they cannot afford ultrasound tests, which are growing in popularity in parts of India, to illegally determine the unborn child's sex.
There are no official figures on how many girls have been killed across the state, but government officials and activists say at least one or two cases of babies being abandoned or found dead are reported every month.
In June, local media reported the arrest of a father of four girls in the district of Dharmapuri. He was suspected of killing his 22-day-old daughter by feeding her poisoned milk, then burying her corpse in a ditch.
Officials say the Cradle Baby program has been a success, improving gender ratios where the project is active.
Rights activists say the improved ratio is largely a result of greater awareness and advocacy work, and better family planning, rather than because of the project.
They say the program has failed to tackle the root causes of female infanticide by promoting the abandonment of girls and allowing parents to shift responsibility to the state. As a result, they say, killing of baby girls continues.
"The government is legitimizing the dumping of girls," said M. Shankar of the Development Education and Environment Protection Society, a Dharmapuri-based charity that works on gender rights issues.
Additional reporting by Anupama Chandrasekaran; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Michael Perry