Baby boys 'stolen' from maternity clinic: A doctor in India is accused of replacing the newborn sons of his impoverished patients with aborted foetuses, writes Tim McGirk from Faridabad

THE MURTI Nursing Home had a reputation for being a place where mothers delivered only daughters and stillborn sons, but it had the advantage of being cheap. Pacing outside the surgery where his wife was giving birth, Zamindar Pandit at last heard the sound of a baby crying. 'Are you alright?' Mr Pandit shouted through the bolted door. 'I'm fine,' Jaileshwari, his wife, replied wearily. 'And it's a boy.'

The birth of a boy in India is an occasion for much rejoicing, and Mr Pandit ran back to his hut in Patel Nagar slum, behind the Faridabad Goodyear tyre factory near New Delhi, to collect payment for the clinic and gather his friends. Having a son instead of a daughter would spare Mr Pandit from having to pay a punishing dowry later on. A son would bring dignity and, as he grew, wages. And according to Hindu custom, his son would be there to light Mr Pandit's funeral pyre and ease his soul's departure.

But when Mr Pandit and his friends returned to the clinic last Monday, the doctor, Bhoj Murti, thrust a dead baby into his arms. 'He told me it was stillborn,' said Mr Pandit. 'But the baby seemed dry. Its skin was swollen and puffy.' Then, Mr Pandit unwrapped the cotton cloth around the dead infant and saw that it was the corpse of a baby girl.

Enraged, Mr Pandit left and returned to the Murti clinic with 500 men from his slum, tough Bihari labourers like himself. They surrounded the clinic, smashed the windows with stones and roughed up Dr Murti when he tried to escape by scooter. 'One of the neighbours shouted: 'There] There] On the roof]' The nurse was hiding something - a bundle - inside the water tank,' recounted Mr Pandit. It was his missing newborn son.

Mr Pandit's friend, Ram Audesh, dashed to the roof and rescued the baby from the tank, just seconds before he sank under the water. Dr Murthi, his wife Ram, and a nurse, Ashi, are accused of kidnapping and attempted murder. Evidence suggests that Dr Murti and his wife were snatching newborn babies from their poor and often illiterate patients and selling them for adoption. This gruesome case reveals a strange paradox: that even in an over- populated country such as India, there is an illegal market for adopting children - but only boys are wanted.

S P Srivastav, a programme officer for the Indian Council of Child Welfare, said: 'Most of the children adopted from orphanages in Delhi are boys. The waiting queue is quite long.' Girls are seen as a burden, since parents are obliged to pay a dowry often large enough to deplete the family savings. Among rural Indians, the killing of newborn girls is widespread. And even in the cities, many pregnant women will have an abortion if a sex test determines that the foetus is female.

This practice of weeding out the unborn girls allegedly enabled Dr Murti to contrive his bizarre baby theft. His clinic carried out many illegal abortions, said police, and the doctor is thought to have used a seven-month foetus from a late abortion to switch with Mr Pandit's boy. Yashpal Singhal, Faridabad's senior superintendent of police, claimed: 'They'd even gone to the trouble of sewing the umbilical cord from Jaileshwari's baby to the dead foetus so it would look fresh.'

Sitting under a tree in Patel Nagar slum, six women explained how, when their moment of delivery came, the nursing clinic staff covered their faces in a white gauze so that they could not see the actual birth. After delivery, these women claimed that Dr Murti gave them an injection which made them lose consciousness. Then they were presented with a bill for more than 1,000 rupees ( pounds 20) and a dead baby. 'I heard the crying,' said Munni, 25, who underwent labour in Murti clinic on 6 February. 'But when I came awake afterwards, the doctor-sahib told me that the baby had died inside me. The baby they showed me looked so very old.'

The families of Patel Nagar slum are demanding that police track down their missing sons. But the chances of the babies' return from somewhere in India - or from adoption abroad - are slim.