Can PM-CARES funds be extended to all orphaned during pandemic, asks Supreme Court

File photo of the Supreme Court of India.  

Over 75,000 children have been orphaned, abandoned or have lost a parent during the COVID pandemic, and many of them may become victims of human trafficking rackets or descend into crime, a report in the Supreme Court said on Tuesday.

Orphans are of particular concern to the Supreme Court. An affidavit filed by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) on July 26 show that 6,855 children have been orphaned between April 1, 2020 and July 23, 2021. The Commission pointed out that each of these children have their own individual social backgrounds. The solution to help them rise again should be “individualised”. A one-size-fits-all scheme for all children may not work.

The Bench of Justices L. Nageswara Rao and Aniruddha Bose orally asked the government whether PMCARES Fund could be extended to children orphaned during the COVID months and not just those whose parent or guardian died of the virus.

The scheme originally proposed to fund the educational requirements, in the form of uniforms, textbooks, etc. The scheme would also offer financial help to children for their higher education. A corpus of ₹10 lakh would be set aside for each child. The child would get the corpus amount in lump-sum on reaching the age of 23. There is also health insurance till the age of 18 years.

West Bengal’s figure

The Supreme Court also questioned West Bengal’s claim that only 27 children had become orphans during the COVID-19 months. The court even threatened to order a separate probe into the figure. The Bench said it would summon the Department Secretary, adding that it was unbelievable that such a large State would have only 27 orphans. It directed the District Magistrates to collect information on children who had been orphaned during the pandemic.

The Bench is hearing a suo motu case dealing with children impacted by the pandemic.

Focused response needed

The court’s amicus curiae, advocate Gaurav Agrawal, in his submissions on Tuesday said intervention and response by authorities to problems of these children should be “more focussed”.

“There is no reason why we should not be able to reach out and ensure that their education is not disrupted and that their guardians have minimum amount to look after them. If the orphans are to be institutionalised, the States would end up spending higher amounts. If children are not looked after by their guardians, they would be trafficked or may end up taking the path of crime, both of which are not desirable outcomes,” Mr. Agrawal submitted.

Desperate straits

Justice Rao shared the experience he had in his native State.

“I was talking to the district judicial officers about these children. They said they keep getting frantic calls from the children asking them to be taken back to observation homes, saying they have not eaten anything at home for days… These children should not be left in a position where they have to fend for themselves,” Justice Rao said.

The NCPCR data also showed that 68,218 children lost one of their parents during the pandemic months till July 23 this year. Another 247 children were abandoned across the country. The NCPCR has collated the data from statistics conveyed by the States and Union Territories.

The court hearing highlighted the aspect of children studying in private schools and orphaned during COVID.

“Quite a few of them are studying in private schools… The State governments may work out a mechanism for continuing the education of orphaned children in the existing schools. The number of orphans going to private schools should be ascertained and arrangement must be worked out for each child,” Mr. Agrawal suggested.

Besides, eligible children who have either not enrolled or dropped out of schools should be enrolled in schools.

Support for guardians

Secondly, authorities should reach out to the guardians of these orphans and gauge whether they really can afford to have these children and if they require financial help. Mr. Agrawal suggested increasing the government sponsorship limits for these children under the various existing schemes.

Mr. Agrawal referred to the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) which provides children in need a monthly stipend of ₹2,000 each.

“But there is a limit of ₹10 lakh a district. Thus, at the most 42 children in a district can be provided sponsorship benefits. Due to the present pandemic, the number of children who require sponsorship has increased. The Centre and States should consider increasing the sponsorship limits,” Mr. Agrawal submitted.

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 7:11:03 PM |

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