“We are devastated, my sister Sona* (name changed) was infected as our mother passed away, she was in home isolation. Now our future is almost bleak, I do not know if I can continue my education as my younger siblings are still minor and we do not have any source of income at this moment,” said Pushpa* (name changed)  from Assam, one among the three siblings who lost their parent to the pandemic.

India is dealing with one of the most severe pandemics in the recent history of human civilization. Children who constitute one–third of the country’s population are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The pandemic has created an unprecedented situation, which has a cascading effect on vulnerable children.

With the onset of the second wave of COVID-19, which has hit the country, it has been disheartening to read stories about children who have become orphans, losing one or both parents to the deadly virus. A pandemic-induced crisis requiring the utmost attention of both public and the authorities have become essential since many children have lost their parent or parents to the pandemic and are without care or protection.

Save the Children, is deeply concerned about the growing number of children who have lost parents to COVID-19 in India. Desperate pleas to adopt orphaned children have circulated on social media, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking and abuse.

These pleas indicate the painstaking realities of young children left to fend for their fate. In reality, such orphaned children are more susceptible, now more than ever, to land in the traps of traffickers or criminals if proper processes of adoption are not followed.

It is a common misperception that child shelters are a better option to care for an orphaned child. While it is true many child shelters do a good job of taking care of kids in need, it is also a sad fact that most of them will never assess the children under their care for adoption. In a way, this fate is better than being abandoned on the streets. The shelters are also suffering during COVID, with workers not able to attend to the children.

It is impossible to know exactly how many are affected, although the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR)in an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court of India, has shared six-point schemes, to ensure care and protection to children, who have lost one or both their parents to the pandemic.

According to the same affidavit, data of 9,346 affected children have been uploaded on the newly created BalSwaraj portal, which includes data on 1,742 children who lost both parents, 7,464 now in a single-parent household, 140 have been abandoned from March 2020 to May 29, 2021.

This might be just the tip of the iceberg. The NCPCR data reveals the enormity of the task before the government. We can safely estimate that many thousands of young children have lost one or more caregivers, and the remaining family members may not be ready or capable to take them in, as in reality, many parents might have lost their lives, without even getting tested as the pandemic has hit the rural hinterland of India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the roll-out PM Cares for Children scheme in a bid to support children who lost their parents to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states have announced special packages and schemes for the welfare of orphaned children. The Centre has issued advisories and guidelines for children who are without parents or caregivers and are defined as children in need of care and protection as per the JJ Act.

The Supreme Court has also taken cognizance of the plight of children orphaned and abandoned due to the pandemic. The court has directed District Magistrates to take charge of such children and attend to their basic needs of food, shelter, health and education.

The court has also directed authorities to upload data on the number of affected children since March 2020 on the ‘Bal Swaraj’ portal set up by the National Commission for Protection of Children’s Rights (NCPCR)

It is critical that such children enter the legal adoption pool, not only for their wellbeing but also for the legal protection of the entire family unit formed through adoption. If the process is not completed legally, the child could be separated from the adoptive parents, and the parents could even be imprisoned for child trafficking.

There is a strong legal process for adoption in India. To help a child get to an adoptive family, any concerned citizen can reach Childline (1098) to report a child who has been abandoned or orphaned.

Likewise, the situation in Assam is also painstaking.  During the period between April and May 2021, as the nation was reeling under the second wave of COVID-19 and wanted to breathe, some cases like that of Pushpa* (name changed), who lost their parents, were doing the rounds in the states’ dailies.

With the increase in the number of orphaned children, there was also fear for these children (who are in need of care and protection) either becoming victims of child marriage or falling prey to traffickers. The state of Assam already has indicated an increase in child marriage 21.3% in the recently released National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-20) data and high rate of child abuse and child trafficking (according to 2018 data, Assam had reported 2120 missing cases of children.

An analysis of these missing cases has revealed that children were either victims as child bribes, of sexual abuse due to child marriage, or are trafficked). Thus it is anticipated, that these hapless children, many of whom are yet to be identified, are going to add fuel to the fire and thereby increasing the risk of children in immediate need of care and protection.

If this pandemic teaches us one thing, let it be that we don’t want to be a country that allows vulnerable children to get institutionalized, trafficked, illegally adopted, or left begging for handouts. Let’s give these children, who have already been through enough, a chance to be fiercely safeguarded and loved by a safe permanent family.

Amid such a suffocating scenario, the steps taken thereafter by the state governments in Assam is a welcoming note. The state has already begun ramping up efforts to care for the children who have become orphans due to this pandemic. The Assam Government through the Chief Minister’s Shishu Seva scheme will be providing Rs 3,500 per month to the guardian of every child orphaned due to COVID-19 in the state, for their education and skill development.

As per this scheme, those children who have lost both their parents and are being looked after by their extended family members will be entitled to Rs 3,500 financial aid per month. Children below the age of 10 years without any family support will be provided shelter at child care institutions.

As per this scheme, those children who have lost both their parents and are being looked after by their extended family members will be entitled to Rs 3,500 financial aid per month. Children below the age of 10 years without any family support will be provided shelter at child care institutions. They will have access to the required education facilities. The scheme also promises that children will have access to the required education facilities and many more.

It is now extremely, crucial, to identify every unfortunate child so that they can be brought under the social safety net for a secured future. Civil societies need to work in close collaboration with the government mechanism to speed up the process of identification of such children to ensure necessary support.

It is also essential to keep a close vigil at the community level, thus ensuring the active functioning of the child protection committees present in villages and tea garden areas. This would essentially support in rapid identification and inclusion of orphaned children for necessary support extends by the state government.

Save the Children believes that every child deserves a chance for a bright future and it is our endeavor to reach ‘Every Last Child’.

CHITTAPRIYO SADHU 

Chittapriyo Sadhu is deputy director- programme management (East), Save the Children.

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