By Anuradha Nagaraj and Subrata Nagchoudhury
CHENNAI/KOLKATA, India, March 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A politician from India's ruling party - and a leader of its women's wing - was the mastermind behind a "baby trafficking racket" that sold two dozen children for tens of thousands of dollars, police said on Wednesday.
Campaigners jumped on the arrest - which followed a 10-day police chase for Juhi Chowdhury - and demanded a full investigation into top officials' ties with human traffickers.
"She is the mastermind behind the baby trafficking racket," said Rajesh Kumar of the West Bengal CID.
"She was involved in the illegal adoption and trafficking of babies from a nursing home in Jalpaiguri, whose owner Chandana Chakrabarty had already been arrested."
Chowdhury appeared in court on Wednesday, charged with the trafficking offences. Police have 90 days to file a formal charge sheet and Chowdhury told reporters she was being framed.
A leader of the Bhartiya Janata Party's women's wing, Chowdhury went on the run last month and was arrested late on Tuesday night near the Indian-Nepalese border in the eastern state of West Bengal, police said.
Investigators had been looking for Chowdhury since they shut down an orphanage in West Bengal and arrested its owner for illegally selling babies to childless couples.
The orphanage, in the city of Jalpaiguri, was run by a non-profit organisation and had sold at least two dozen children for adoption, police said.
The orphanage was using forged documents, fake stamps and certificates to sell the babies, at a cost of 100,000-200,000 rupees (US$1,500-3,000) each.
Investigating officers said both the owner and Chowdhury had met senior ministers, politicians and government officials to get licences and grants required to run the child care home.
"We are verifying these links," Kumar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The orphanage was registered with the Central Adoption Resource Authority and is the only one in Jalpaiguri district permitted to put children up for adoption.
Crime data released by the Indian government in 2016 showed more than 40 percent of human trafficking cases in 2015 involved children being bought, sold and exploited as modern-day slaves.
As the probe widened on Wednesday, campaigners said the arrests pointed to the existence of ties between traffickers and figures in local authorities.
"It is not possible for such a big scam without the knowledge of district officials," said Victor Basu of Dooars Jagron, a regional non-profit group fighting for child rights.
"This home had government sanction and it has trafficked young women and sold their babies for illegal adoption. How is that possible without collusion?"
Chowdhury told local media outside court that she was a "victim of political conspiracy".
But experts say baby trafficking is becoming an organised crime in India, reaping big rewards for anyone involved.
"These incidents are gross violations of child rights in both (the) letter and spirit of the existing laws," said Mohua Chatterjee of human rights group Child Rights and You.
"Despite the guidelines and instruments available under the law, the technicalities of adoption process still remains a grey area for the prospective parents, who due to lack of proper knowledge often fall prey to the evildoers." (Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Ed Upright. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)