Covid-19 in India

India promises to take care of Covid orphans amid child trafficking concerns

An underprivileged child wearing face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus participates in morning prayer at the Sangharsh Vidya Kendra school at a slum area on the outskirts of Jammu, India, Wednesday, Nov.25, 2020. The school provides free education to underprivileged children two days a week.
An underprivileged child wearing face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus participates in morning prayer at the Sangharsh Vidya Kendra school at a slum area on the outskirts of Jammu, India, Wednesday, Nov.25, 2020. The school provides free education to underprivileged children two days a week. AP - Channi Anand

India says it will stand by children who lost both or one parent in the coronavirus pandemic and pay for their upbringing. The government unveiled the mammoth target just days after warning against human traffickers targeting vulnerable kids.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government said children who have lost parents, the surviving parent, legal guardians or foster parents to Covid-19 will receive state support including financial aid.

“The prime minister emphasized that children represent the future of the country and the country will do everything possible to support and protect the children,’’ Modi’s office added in a statement.

It said a corpus will be also set up in banks to help each of the victims after they turn 23.

Second wave impact

Child Welfare Minister Smriti Irani said 577 youngsters were orphaned in the pandemic’s second surge, which killed more than 140,000 people in seven weeks after March and left broken homes and healthcare in shambles.

She did not give a figure for the total number of children hit by the pandemic, which has so far killed 326,000 people and infected 27.7 million since the virus claimed its first victim in India on 12 March, 2020.

A large number of Indian states also rolled out separate welfare programs for the under-aged including free schooling, pocket money, incentives for care givers and shelters.

Maharashtra, India’s richest state, sent out a 10-member taskforce to search for Covid orphans in the region’s 36 districts.

“It is an onerous task as many of these children have left their homes in search of food and safety,” a senior official said from state capital Mumbai.

Courts step in

Prime Minister Modi’s promise came a day after the Supreme Court on Friday ordered India’s 29 states to list Covid-affected minors and said the problem appeared to be far too great.

“We have read somewhere that in Maharashtra over 2,900 children have lost their one or both parents due to Covid-19,” judges L. Nageswara Rao and Aniruddha Bose said in an observation.

“We cannot even imagine how many such children in this large country have got orphaned due to this devastating pandemic," they added.

Lawyer Gaurav Agarwal, assisting the court, said children in India faced great peril.

Such children "are not only living an emotional tragedy, but they are also at high risk of neglect, abuse and exploitation", added UNICEF India's chief Yasmin Haque.

Red flag raised

On 17 May, minister Irani’s office waved the red flag with a public warning against offers for adoption of orphaned kids circulating on social media.

“There were concerns that this could lead to child trafficking. We have carried out investigations into a large number of these messages and have found all of them, so far, to be fake,” a ministry official said.

The ministry in an advisory urged people to alert the authorities in case they chance upon Covid orphans.

Experts say India faced an enormous task as 27 percent of its 1.3 billion population is under 14.

The International Labor Organization estimates over 10 million children under 14 are in the workforce in India.

Charities working for children also warned scarce data could stonewall efforts to safeguard vulnerable children.

"Our authorities are over-burdened and people are hassled,” said technology expert Akancha Srivastava who has launched a Covid-19 helpline for children.

“It's extremely easy in these circumstances to mis-assign a child to some trafficking racket or an adoption racket," Srivastava told the media. 

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