Coronavirus Pandemic

Indian govt and NGOs at odds over Covid-19 orphan data

Joydeep Sen Gupta/New Delhi
Filed on May 28, 2021
Orphaned children at an orphanage in India. Photo: Alamy

Apex court takes up cause of hapless children, who face the threat of being uprooted from their familial surroundings

Hundreds of Indian children have become orphans overnight because of the second and lethal Covid-19 scourge.

Though India’s Union Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) has estimated that 577 children have been orphaned due to Covid-19 since April 1, the figure is only “the tip of an iceberg”, social activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have maintained.

The Supreme Court of India (SCI), the country’s apex court, said on Friday (May 28) that the onus would be on respective state governments to take care of the orphans’ needs.

The court directed the state authorities to identify children who have lost their parents or the family breadwinner following the 68-day nationwide lockdown imposed on March 25, 2020, owing to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The two-judge bench asked the state authorities to take care of needs such as food, shelter, and clothing "without waiting for an official order from this court". It also asked the states to collate information on children who have been orphaned since March 2020 and upload it on the portal of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) by Saturday (May 29).

The apex court will now take up the case on Tuesday (June 1).

Earlier on Thursday (May 27), the WCD authorities identified 577 children orphaned due to Covid-19.

“These children are not abandoned. They are under the watch and protection of the government. We have collected this data from each state government, and we are in touch with them to ensure that these children either get institutional care or are in the care of their immediate family,” the Indian English daily The Hindu quoted a WCD official on Friday.

WCD Secretary Ram Mohan Mishra and joint secretary in the ministry Aastha Saxena-Khatwani have been pulling out all the stops to ensure that the orphaned children would not get uprooted from their familial surroundings.

The bureaucrats maintained that each district has been granted Dh50,000 under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, which has been renamed 'Vaatsalya' for non-institutional childcare. The District Magistrates (DMs) have been empowered to use this money to ensure support for the orphaned children.

The ministry officials also cited messages on social media doing the rounds about Covid-19 orphans for adoption that were under investigation and prove to be fake.

Minister for WCD Smriti Irani, who was on a visit to her constituency Amethi, the erstwhile Gandhi pocket borough in central Uttar Pradesh, on Friday had tweeted about four weeks ago, urging the public to report instances of children found to be orphaned by Covid-19 to either the helpline 1098 or to child welfare committees (CWCs) or the local police.

She had also stated that any plea for the adoption of such children was illegal.

Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), an Indian NGO that has been campaigning for the rights of children since 1980 and was started by the Noble Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, has come to the aid of Covid-19 orphans.

The BBA, which has a pan-India presence, is working in tandem with CWCs.

Dhananjay Tingal, Executive Director, BBA, said, “The data shared by the government about Covid-19 orphans is the tip of the iceberg. More efforts are needed to get authentic data. Besides, the government needs to be alert amid fears that there could be an increase in children being trafficked from rural areas to cities for child labour.”

Data showed that until May 24, BBA received 443 calls on its helpline number for support, of which, 38 children have lost one or both parents to Covid-19 and another 153 callers seeking information about adoption and financial help.

Satyarthi, 67, has been categorical about the roadmap for the future.

“If we leave entire populations of children behind, any investment in healthcare will fall through the cracks between one generation and the next. Politics, profits and property can wait, but our children cannot,” he said at the 74th World Health Assembly, which is being held virtually from May 24 to June 1.

Competitive politics is also on display over the fate of Covid-19 orphans.

The Kerala government on Thursday announced 'one-time' financial help of Dh15,000 for Covid-19 orphans.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said Dh100 per month would be given to the children till they attain 18 years of age. Besides, the state government will bear the cost of their education till they obtain a college degree.

Similar initiatives have also been announced by the Delhi and Odisha dispensation, ironically, both like Kerala, are ruled by opposition parties and are at odds with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition federal government led by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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