By Dhiraj Kumar
On 4th of May 2021, Union Cabinet Minister for Women & Child Development, Smriti Irani tweeted “If you come to know of any child who has lost both parents to COVID and has no one to take care of her/him, inform Police or Child Welfare Committee of your district or contact Childline 1098. It is your legal responsibility. It is illegal to give or take orphan children of anyone else in adoption. Such children should be taken to Child welfare committee, which will take necessary action in the best interest of the child. If anyone contacts you regarding orphan children available for direct adoption, do not get into the trap & stop them. It’s illegal. Inform local Child welfare Committee or Police or Childline 1098 about such children. We all must ensure legal adoption, otherwise children can be trafficked in the name of adoption. Save them. Inform Police or Child Welfare Committee or Childline 1098 if you come to know of any such child. Please do not share pictures and contact detail of vulnerable children in distress situation in social media. Their identity is to be protected as per law. Instead, inform police, Child welfare committee or Childline 1098.” While the minister raised an important topic reacting to the clamor on social media about fake adoption rackets of children orphaned by Covid, sharing of details of lonely children, and the danger of child trafficking, the debate on the future of the “Covid Orphans” is still being furiously argued.
The second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has swept through India like a giant poisonous serpent that just would not loosen its coils around the country and its hapless people. Poor preparation at the central government level on the forecast of a second wave resulting in Covid-19 infected people dying for want of facilities, oxygen, ventilators, beds, and medicines coupled with the addition of the Brazilian and South African new strains of virus has left a trail of devastation, not seen in India since Indian Independence in 1947. While the whole world has watched in horror and grieved the victims in urban India, “entire families have wiped out in rural India” as per ground reports of Bloomberg, reported by NDTV. With the countries of the world continuing to send aid and support, both state & central government waking up from slumber, media reporting at its peak on the carnage, vaccination bumbling from one day to the next, a whole set of junior citizens lie in the devastation of their own- the kids whose both parents have died due to Covid-19.
Dubbed as “Covid Orphans”, first coined on social media, these innocent toddlers have still no clue of what might have happened to their parents and why they still have not come home. It’s been days since they have seen their parents and unaware that they have passed on to another realm. The tragedy of the Covid Orphans as acute as the adult members left behind after their loved ones have died due to Covid. Relatives of the children from poor families whose both parents have passed away are informing the police as the first port of call, post that they are being sent to Child Welfare committees as per the established procedure. The others who are not being reported are in real danger of being targeted by drug traffickers and organ smugglers. In the urban elite centers, Covid Orphans are being taken care of by their closest relatives before the elders can decide their future course of action. The children will need a 25–30-year horizon for any living relative to plan for their future. Either way, the children are at the stage of emotional breakdown as many of them may still not have been told the truth of the fate of their parents. The real tragedy is how can the toddlers comprehend the truth and its repercussions at this young age. One yet does not know if these children are being counseled by special councilors who can delicately speak to them and try and ease their mental pain and pressure of having watched their parents die in front of their eyes. As per the Human Rights Watch “The risks posed by the COVID-19 crisis to children are enormous,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments need to act urgently to protect children during the pandemic, but also to consider how their decisions now will best uphold children’s rights after the crisis ends.”
With no other support system, orphaned children are landing up at the Child Welfare Committees in each state from where they are directed to other centers for rehabilitation.
Several NGOs have swung into action to take care of the Covid Orphans like Austria based SOS Children’s village which states on its website “SOS Children’s Villages is an independent, non-governmental, non-profit international development organization headquartered in Innsbruck, Austria. The organization provides humanitarian and developmental assistance to children in need and protects their interests and rights around the world”.
Like the incoherent response of Covid, the central and state governments are clueless about the different strategies that will need to adapt to deal with covid orphans due to the magnitude of the tragedy. Case in point, in Himachal, former Congress minister and former Member of the Legislative Assembly from NagrotaBagwan, Gurmukh Singh Bali took an initiative announcing that the local unit of the Congress party would adopt all children, who have been orphaned due to the pandemic in Kangra district, prompting the Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur to announce that the state government will fulfill its duty to extend full help to these children. The government will provide Rs 2,500 per month to each of them under Foster Care Scheme till they turn 18. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced it would give ₹ 2,500 every month to children whose parents have died of Covid. The children will get the money till they turn 25, and their education will also be paid by the Delhi government. The pitfall of such an exercise could be children living under government care for long periods and the efficiency of governmental care is highly doubtful. The children could still feel like an orphan.
On 21st May 2021, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi tweeted a letter written by his mother and Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi to provide free education to children orphaned by COVID-19 “Children are amongst the worst hit by Covid trauma, many having lost their parents to the dreadful situation. Congress President makes an important suggestion to safeguard their future & provide them free education at NVs. It’s high time GOI listened! “I feel that as a nation, we owe it to them to give them hope for a robust future after the unimaginable tragedy that has befallen them,” Mrs. Gandhi said in the letter.
The scope of adoption was greatly narrowed down by the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956, which provided for the adoption of Hindu children by the adoptive parents belonging to Hinduism. Adoption rules in India have become stricter over the decades. Earlier in the 1950-90s decades, anyone could adopt children without bureaucratic and legal tangles, but the laws today are governed by the stricter Juvenile Justice Act of 2015.
While there still could be genuine people who are posting on social media to adopt the Covid Orphans as they have the means and resources to support children in their family, the danger could be of scamsters and gangs operating on social media to farcically adopt children to exploit them. Childless couples and single parents who are on the waiting list across various adoption centers for months and years are also anxiously watching the developments if Covid could speed up the process to add bundles of joy to their family. Add to that, if the children spend too much time in childcare centers, they could be disillusioned or demotivated, waiting for their new adopted parents.
As a start to look for solutions, one was suggested by Sonia Gandhi in her letter where she invoked her husband and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who conceptualized the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya (JNV) that focussed on talented children in rural areas and provided them education comparable to the best in a residential school system, JNV started as an experiment in 1986 and added it to the National Policy on Education that same year.
Another solution is to speed up the current adoption system where the waiting period of deserving parents is reduced from months and years to perhaps 60 to 90 days, of course after proper verifications and checks and balances. The gap time, between genetic parents and adoptive parents, should be reduced drastically for the young souls so that they do not feel lonely during the lag period. Fast-track childcare centers must be constituted and can be mandated to speed up the adoption process responsibly.
Another solution is for wealthy Indians, cinema actors, celebrities, cricketers, and businessmen who can easily afford to add a child to their family must come forward to adopt Covid Orphans through the process and rules laid out by the Government to set an example in society to follow in adopting victims of a global calamity. As the civil society and the government debate on the future of the Covid Orphans, whichever way the government conceptualizes the final policy, it must accommodate provisions and rules with kids gloves as the little hearts are involved who are the future of India.
(Dhiraj Kumar is an author and writer and he is writing his first book. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @authordhiraj.)