CHILDREN ORPHANED DUE TO COVID-19: A DAUNTING CHILD RIGHTS CONCERN IN INDIA

Introduction

The Covid-19 Pandemic, a health and human rights crisis is seemingly turning into a child rights crisis in India. The rights of a huge number of children are jeopardized due to the social and economic upheaval in the country. The second wave has its brunt on a vast number of families and has left thousands of children orphaned; some without one parent and some even abandoned. Unfortunately, the numbers have been rising ever since. This calls for an urgent need for all the states as well as non-state actors to pay heed to this alarming issue where various fundamental rights, child rights and basic human rights are violated.

The agonising scenario, of children orphaned as a result of Covid-19 deaths, is explored in this piece of writing. The author aims to showcase how the country is dealing with the issue and what more should be done, to address their plight more effectively.

The Status Quo

The Supreme Court of India has directed the authorities to urgently take charge of orphan children who have either lost their parents or guardian/s, and prepare a database regarding the same. It has been clearly instructed by the top court in the suo-moto proceedings of In Re Contagion Of Covid-19 Virus that the children should be provided with the food, ration, clothing and shelter at the earliest. Some of these children may have lost guardians (after losing their parents) or the family's single earner, leaving them more vulnerable. Current numbers, according to NCPCR, suggest that since April 2020, about 3,500 children have become orphans, and over 26,000 have lost a parent to the virus. The suo-moto hearing of the protection of these children is going on.

In response to this, the government announced a special relief package for these vulnerable children under “PM Cares for Children”. However, this comes as a step half taken. While the announcement comes rightly as an expansive assistance programme, the procedure of implementation remains unclear so far. Promises of funding, schooling and health benefits do not make it a relief plan. It is a mere bureaucratization unless the continued tally of the beneficiaries in need of the package is assessed and a plan is laid out w.r.t to its actual implementation.

While on the brighter side, it is clear that the Supreme Court of India is treating the issue on a priority basis, however, the fact that the authorities were not prepared, given that the Juvenile Justice Act (JJ Act) is in force, is a matter of serious concern. Chapter II, Section 3 of the JJ Act, stipulates certain broad principles which shall be observed by the Central government, State government and other similar bodies. These fundamental principles include principle of best interest; positive measures; and principle of safety, all of which are presently in peril.

What is at Stake?

Firstly, the present situation brings with itself several underlying issues, directly concerning child rights in India. For instance, the children already suffering are more prone to other child-related crimes such as child trafficking, child labour, child marriages, child abuse, and child begging. Further, their right to education; health and social security is at immediate risk. This directly violates the fundamental rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

Secondly, the devastating experience of death/s has a variety of psychological, emotional, physical, social, and cultural effects on the children. Mere financial support can barely tackle the forthcoming generation of traumatized children, exposed to the stigma of being covid orphans. Here, it becomes pertinent to understand the need for psycho-emotional support for their long-term well-being.

Thirdly, there have been rising concerns over the social media pleas for the adoption of covid orphans, being illegal and detrimental. According to the activists, these appeals have increased the possible risk of trafficking and other crimes related to children. Without the proper procedure, as laid down in Chapter VIII, sections 56 to 60 of the JJ Act, any adoption would be illegal and the state will have to assume the role of parens patriae.

Call of the Hour and Beyond

To protect the innocent and vulnerable children from the wrought of their loss, the centre and the state government needs to work together with the non-state actors (like child rights’ NGOs). It becomes pertinent to assess the figures; acknowledge the complexity of the situation; and consequently taking effective steps on a continual and immediate basis.

Some of the measures are already in place; however, their effectiveness has to be scrutinized.

● Proper procedure of adoption, as issued by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, has to be strictly examined.

● It has to be ensured that the budget allocation and relief packages are percolated down to the beneficiaries. Ensuring that children's funding is not slashed, rather an appropriate and flexible utilisation of current resources is done when needed.

● Local authorities and bodies need to ensure that amidst the crisis, the children are protected from any kind of abuse or criminal activities. It is necessary to ensure that efficient systems of reporting the crimes against children are in force.

● The state should protect the children from financial exploitation of any kind. For this restrictions should be in place that prevents the child's ancestral property from being sold.

● The judiciary should ensure that children’s right to be heard is secured, and due process is observed throughout court trials or investigations by Juvenile Justice Boards or the Child Welfare Committees while adjudicating the cases.

● The national and state human rights should monitor the position of children and state responses to ensure compliance with children's rights under