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Parents’ debt weighs down many children orphaned by COVID-19

Patients being taken to the emergency block of a New Delhi hospital during the brutal second wave of COVID-19. File

Patients being taken to the emergency block of a New Delhi hospital during the brutal second wave of COVID-19. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Four siblings aged between 1.5 to 14 years who lost their mother and father during the brutal second wave of COVID-19 last year are staring at the prospect of losing their home over an unpaid loan bought by their parents.

They are twin brothers aged 18 months, and two sisters aged nine and 14 years from New Delhi who are being looked after by three families related to them.

Their father had bought a home loan of ₹25 lakh, and repaid nearly ₹7 lakh through monthly instalments. A private bank which provided the loan has since the demise of the couple sent multiple notices seeking payment of the balance amount.

"They have threatened to attach the house if there is a failure to pay remaining EMIs. This is the only property the children own. The bank can look at waiving off the loan through their corporate social responsibility fund or extend the timeline for repayment until the children start earning and are able to payback the loan," says their paternal uncle, Mangat Singh Aswal.

The Gurgaon-based businessman now looks after the two sisters. Of the twin brothers, one is with his paternal grandparent, and the other with a maternal aunt.

Mr. Aswal is now contemplating moving Delhi High Court to seek a stay order on the bank's attempt to seize the house.

Two minor girls from Ghaziabad, who lost both their parents along with paternal grandparents over a matter of weeks in April and May during the second wave of COVID-19 last year now live with their paternal aunt in Bareilly. Their parents had taken a loan of ₹24 lakh to set up a shop. While they paid back ₹8 lakh, an amount of ₹ 16 lakh is yet to be repaid.

"The bank has asked me to start paying monthly instalments of ₹30,000. But I only earn ₹30,000 per month as a school teacher," says Mr. Rajesh Mishra, paternal aunt's husband. The couple have two sons, one of whom is working and the other one is studying in a college.

"There is also their family home, as well as my father's pension. We would like these to be also transferred in the name of the two girls who need them the most. These assets shouldn't fall into the hands of other family members," says Neetu Mishra, their paternal aunt.

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) recently flagged before the Supreme Court the issue of unsettled debts facing children orphaned during COVID-19, who may lose family assets or properties to banks at a time when it could be vital source of financial support for education and other needs.

The NCPCR urged the court to direct DMs to “take steps regarding the financial liabilities like loans, mortgages, insurance premiums, etc, due on such children”, liaise with bank on such matters as well as ensure that rights of children on family property left behind by the deceased parents are protected. The NCPCR also wrote a letter to Chief Secretaries of all States and Union Territories on March 16 with these recommendations. According to its estimates, there are 1,47,773 children who have lost one parent and another 10,600 who have become orphans due to COVID-19 between April 1, 2020 and March 15, 2022. A Lancet study estimates that there are 19 lakh children in India who lost primary caregivers (one or both parents or custodial grandparents) to COVID-19. Globally, of those who lost a parent to COVID-19, 76% were paternal orphans.

The District Child Protection Officer (DCPO) of South Delhi handling the case of the four Delhi siblings, however, had no knowledge about NCPCR's advice.

"These are matters between the banks and the affected families. Only an order from the Supreme Court or the government can make a difference," said Varun Yadav, DCPO.

Until then, NCPCR's direction can also be enforced, say legal experts. "Parents can approach the DMs and based on the NCPCR's letter they can be asked to take action, and if they do not comply then the families can approach the High Court and complain about the failure on the part of the DMs to comply with the direction of the NCPCR," says Basawa Prasad Kunale from Alternative Law Forum.

Neither the children from Delhi, nor those from Ghaziabad have yet been enrolled under the PM Cares for Children scheme of the Union government which offers free education in government or private school, health insurance cover of ₹5 lakh under PM Jan Aarogya Yojana, waiver of interest on loans taken for higher education, monthly stipend from the age of 18 years and a lump sum of ₹10 lakh when a child turns 23 years old. The scheme is for those who have lost both parents or the only living parent to COVID-19.

"We have to run around a lot to claim our entitlements. We had first filed an application at Ghaziabad where the girls are from, but we live in Bareilly. It is not possible for us to keep travelling to Ghaziabad for completing the formalities. We want to apply afresh at Bareilly, but the officials say we must first withdraw our application from Ghaziabad. I work in Farrukhabad and my wife looks after the two girls all by herself and it is not possible for her to do the running around." says Mr. Mishra

The family from Delhi says they received the ex gratia amount of ₹50,000 announced by Delhi government only after they sent a complaint to the NCPCR and have not yet been registered for the PM Cares scheme.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2022 10:28:19 am |