Rajat Sharma

How to deal with children orphaned by Covid pandemic

akbToday I want to speak about several thousand children orphaned by the Covid pandemic in India. Their ages range from less than a year to 18 years. These children belong to vulnerable groups as they have no guardian to look after their basic needs. While Uttar Pradesh government has officially reported 2,110 children who have lost one of their parents or left abandoned, Bihar reported 1,327 and Kerala reported 952 orphaned children.

National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has told the Supreme Court that the pandemic has orphaned 1,742 children, out of which at least 140 children have been left abandoned, while 7,464 children have lost at least one of their parents. All these children need food, shelter, clothing and education. The Supreme Court has asked all states to upload data about children during the period beginning March 2020 till May 29 this year.

As of this moment, nobody is sure exactly how many children have been orphaned in India due to Covid pandemic. Even as state governments are scrambling to collect data about Covid orphans, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already initiated steps to provide free education and care for these orphans from PM CARES Fund. All children, who lost both parents or have a surviving parent, legal guardian or adoptive parents, will become beneficiaries.

PM CARES Fund will contribute through a special scheme, a corpus of Rs 10 lakh for each child to fund education, till the child becomes an adult at the age of 18. On reaching the age of 23, the grown up adult will get the entire corpus amount in one lump sum for personal or professional use. For orphans under 10 years of age, the child will be given admission to the nearest Kendriya Vidyalaya or a private school as a day scholar. The Fund will pay for the child’s fees, uniform, and books. For children between 11 to 18 years, the child will be given admission to any Central government school like Navodaya Vidyalaya or Sainik School. For higher education, the child will be assisted in getting education loans and interest on this loan will be paid for by the Fund.

The intentions are good, the schemes are fine but how will orphaned children avail of these benefits? Can we expect small or adolescent orphaned children going to government departments, filling up forms, submitting certificates, and availing of this scheme? The direction has to be reversed. Instead of orphans seeking help from the government, it is the state machinery which should send its officials to meet these orphaned children, prepare details and arrange a smooth transfer of stipends or admissions or education loans.
The entire task devolves upon the state governments, who will have to provide data to the Centre.

Already there is too much confusion about the number of orphaned children in different states. While NCPCR has told the Supreme Court that a total of 9,346 children have been orphaned or abandoned during the pandemic, a separate affidavit filed by Maharashtra government shows the number of orphans at 4,451 in that state alone. These are children who have lost both or either one of their parents and have been abandoned. Union Women and Child Minister Smriti Irani’s ministry says, 577 children have been orphaned till May 25, according to official records. When this figure was challenged by people in social media, it was clarified that the NCPCR had submitted records of Covid orphans from March last year, while Smriti Irani’s ministry had shared data only from April 1 till May 25 this year.

I feel this is a sensitive issue and should not be made a topic for political blame game. Both the Centre and states must reach out to these orphans, who need support from government in the form of food, shelter, education and clothes. Reaching out to these orphans in the states is not a big deal. I asked our reporters in Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh to trace children orphaned by the pandemic, and the ground reports reflect a horrible situation. If our reporters can reach out to these orphans within hours, why can’t the vast state machinery reach out to them and send correct, credible data to the Centre and Supreme Court?

Our reporter Gonika Arora visited Dumaria village in Gaya district and met a 11-year-old orphan Shatrughan and his 8-year-old brother. Their mother Domni Devi, a labourer, died of Covid in April, while their father had already died several years ago. There was only a box, donated by an NGO, lying inside the dark home created out of broken bricks. The 11-year-old orphan gets Rs 300 wage daily for loading bricks, and barely manages food for himself and his brother, which they cook together. My question: who, from the government, will reach out to these orphans, send their details to the Centre, and arrange smooth transfer of stipends and assistance so that these two orphans can grow up to become able citizens?

Our reporter Manish Bhattacharya in Jaipur met 17-year-old orphan Manan on Tonk Road. Till the first week of April, it was a happy family with Manan staying with his parents. First, his father died of Covid on April 8 and seven days later, his mom passed away. Manan is staring at a dark future as he has no guardian. Manan stays at his friend’s home at night, gets his meals from them. Till now, not a single close relative has come to meet him. Manan is more worried about how to procure death certificates from his parents, because he will not get any assistance unless he gets these certificates. Who, from the government, will reach out to Manan?

Same is the case with Rajesh Singh’s widow in Gayatri Nagar, Jaipur. Rajesh Singh died due to loss of oxygen in April in a hospital. His widow had two small kids to look after. Rajesh was the sole earner in the family. The widow is going from pillar to post to get his death certificate, so that she can claim government assistance. Which government staff will reach out to her?

The situation is complex in rural areas, where thousands of people were infected with Covid. Most of them never went to any hospital, took medicines from quacks and then died. Secondly, children who were orphaned, are not in a position to go to government offices for death certificates, and therefore, cannot claim government aid. In Dalelpura village of Bundi district, there were at least two families, where the adults died of Covid, and there are only orphans left. In one family, there are only three siblings left. Their father passed away seven years ago, their mother died of Covid. She had taken Rs 50,000 loan from villagers for her treatment. The eldest son has to bear the burden of looking after his siblings and return the loan money. Who, from the government, will reach out to this family?

Nearly 230 km from Jaisalmer is Nokh village. In one family, the mother had died earlier, and the father died last month due to Covid. There are only two children left and nobody to look after them. In Alwar district, two sisters lost their parents. Their father had died earlier, and last month their mother died of Covid. Not a single official from the government came to meet these two orphans. Who will meet them and add their names to the official data on orphans?

In Ajmer, two Corona warriors (health care workers), Chandrawati and her husband Kartar Singh, died of Covid within a span of six days, but in the hospital death summary, Covid infection was not mentioned, even though both of them had tested positive several times during treatment. They have two daughters, now orphans, but can they claim government aid?

In Madhya Pradesh, 318 children were orphaned during the second wave of pandemic, according to official data. Our reporter Anurag Amitabh says, there are at least 14 families in Bhopal, where both parents died of Covid leaving their children orphans. He met a brother and sister, Jayant Patharia and Swati, whose parents died of Covid within a span of six days. Jayant’s father Naresh Kumar was a contractor and the only earning member. His mother Indrani died of Covid on April 27, and on May 3, his father died in hospital. Jayant is a third year engineering student. He is now staring at a dark future. There is none to help his family.

There is no denying the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has prepared a scientific and perfect blueprint for helping orphaned children with their education, but implementing this scheme depends upon the state governments. Firstly, the state governments will have to reach out to all such families and collect facts about orphans in the fastest possible time, because every passing day counts. Secondly, every state government must appoint a task force to ensure that the entire paper work is done smoothly for these orphans, so that they can get aid in the form of free ration and free education.

Those among us, who know about such families where children have been orphaned must contact 1098 or the local police and convey the information immediately. There is Child Welfare Committee in every state that looks after such children. Do not try to arrange adoption of these orphans, because it is illegal to do so under CARA (Central Adoption Resource Authority) rules. CARA, under the Ministry of Women and Child Development, is the nodal body for adoption of Indian children and is mandated to monitor and regulate in-country and inter-country adoptions. CARA primarily deals with adoption of orphaned, abandoned or surrendered children through its recognized adoption agencies.

If miscreants try to contact you seeking your help in adopting these orphans, inform the local police immediately. Do not forward WhatsApp messages in which pictures of so-called orphans are posted and your help is sought. These may be intended to trap people. Contact 1098 or the local police to inform about such orphans.

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