NEW DELHI — On a dusty lane too narrow for a car to fit through, the Delhi Girls’ Home sits shrouded by the minarets and residential houses that litter Delhi’s outer suburb of Burari. It’s a cavernous three-story building, housing 15 young Indian girls.

At the end of poorly lighted hallways, the girls’ rooms are packed with metal bunk beds; the walls are covered with Winnie the Pooh, Cinderella and Christian messages.

Ishant, 2, peers through a gate at the PALNA adoption center in New Delhi. The center is a part of the Delhi Council for Child Welfare, a nongovernmental organization established in 1952 to care for children displaced during the riots that followed the partition of India. (Benjamin Gottlieb for The Washington Post)

The girls living at the Delhi Girls’ Home represent the complicated relationship Indians have with adoption. Their families, who are from a mix of Christian, Hindu and Sikh backgrounds, were unable to care for them and sent their girls to the Christian faith-based home for a chance at a better life.

In legal terms, the families never relinquished their legal parenthood; the girls can never be adopted by another set of parents. But they gave away their say in how the girls would be raised. By placing them in a group home, the parents have effectively forfeited their girls’ rights to a conventional family.

In 2010, about 5,700 children were legally adopted in India, an increase in almost 300 percent from 2009, according to the Central Adoption Resource Authority, the country’s official body for adoption. But to view that spike in total adoptions as a sign of government success would be misguided, said Vinita Bhargava, a prominent scholar on the country’s adoption networks.

Juxtaposed with the number of orphans in the country, estimated at 20 million by SOS Children’s Village, an international nongovernmental organization, the government response to changing attitudes toward adoption has been sluggish. Only recently has formalized adoption started to take off in India. Previously, informal inter-family adoptions were the norm.

Two young girls perform gymnastics to the beat of an Indian dhol drum played by an adolescent boy near New Delhi’s Embassy District. In Delhi alone, there are 51,000 children living on the streets, according to a study by Save the Children India. (Benjamin Gottlieb for The Washington Post)

In this predominantly Hindu society, where one’s social designation and caste are vitally important, “borrowing” a child from one’s relatives guaranteed that the parents knew its origins.

In major cities such as New Delhi, upper-middle-class childless couples are overcoming entrenched ideals of caste and creed to look outside their extended family for adoption. But the trend has yet to reach India’s rural pockets. Not every region in India has access to an official adoption agency, explained Mohan Rao, a professor of social science at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Laxmi, one of the Delhi Girls’ Home’s residents, holds a girl on the roof of the home in Burari, a suburb in northern Delhi. (Benjamin Gottlieb for The Washington Post)

“We do not have enough institutions that can deal with this issue,” Rao said. “We have such a huge country — with so many problems facing the country — that this has been something that has in a sense fallen off the radar.”

Bhargava agrees: “The demand for adoption now is so high, but there aren’t enough babies who are legally free for adoption.”

Although families can come and visit, in many cases they don’t. One girl hadn’t seen her brother in five years. Biju Thankachan, who runs the place, doesn’t bring up their families or their past lives unless he has to — it’s too painful, he said.

As attitudes toward adoption change, and agencies and other structures improve, families might shift away from institutionalizing children in homes and put them up for adoption instead. But Bhargava contends that it’s inaccurate to say India has an “orphan problem.”

“There may be millions of destitute children. There may be millions of neglected children, but they’re not legally free for adoption,” she said. “We may be poor, but we’re not necessarily saying, ‘Take our children.’ ”

Orphaned Indian boys, all under age 6, line up for lunch at the PALNA adoption center in New Delhi. (Benjamin Gottlieb for The Washington Post)

Emily Frost and Benjamin Gottlieb reported on the story with a grant from the Knight Foundation.