When Chandrabhan Kushwaha, who runs a small chocolate-biscuit shop in the Hatta tehsil headquarters of Damoh district in Madhya Pradesh, got infected with Covid-19 during the deadly second wave, little did he know that it would devastate his entire family. Chandrabhan succumbed to the virus within a few months, leaving his two kids orphaned. His wife, Rekha, had passed away a few years ago.
Their father's demise meant that Akruthi*, who is studying in Class 12, and Santhosh*, studying in Class 10, not only had to halt their education but also find a means to provide for themselves.
This harsh reality is today being faced by lakhs of children orphaned due to the pandemic. According to a recent report published in the medical journal The Lancet, over 1.19 lakh children in India have lost a primary caregiver between March 2020 and April 2021. The study estimates that the number of children who have lost a primary or a secondary caregiver is much higher due to under-reporting in the country.
This finding is also in line with the community calling drive-by Educate Girls that reached out to 5,00,000+ community members from 16,000+ villages in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan to analyse the impact of the pandemic. They have also found high incidences of orphaned children and now women-led households due to the lives lost in the pandemic.
Akruthi, who wanted to pursue a degree in hotel management, is now doubtful of being able to do so, while Santhosh has temporarily abandoned his education to take care of his father's shop. The money that the siblings make from the shop is being used to run their household. "The pandemic and my father's untimely demise has put a stop to our education. I have completed my 12th standard, but I may not be able to study further," lamented Akruthi.
The Madhya Pradesh government has announced many schemes for those affected by the pandemic, including a pension of Rs 5,000 per month for the children orphaned in the pandemic. While Santhosh was given approval from the Child Welfare Scheme of the government to get the certificate required to get the benefits, Akruthi has been unable to get the certificate. "When the government officers came home, a one-time financial assistance of Rs 5,000 was given to us but post that we have not received any help," said Santhosh. Akruthi's approval order is awaited.
Debt, disease and uncertainty
Jagnath Regar, a resident of Dantra village of Asind tehsil of Bhilwara district, used to support his family of five by selling fruits and vegetables in his village. He was the only earning member of his family. Unfortunately, he got infected by the coronavirus in April 2021 and had to be hospitalised. The acute shortage of oxygen and beds prevented him from getting the necessary treatment and he succumbed to the virus on May 12. The family members, who had borrowed Rs 2 lakh for his treatment, now have no earning member and a huge debt on their shoulders.
Jagnath's wife, Ladi Devi, now works as a labourer and she hopes to return the borrowed money by finding work under the MGNREGA scheme. She also makes some money by stitching clothes for her neighbours and friends on her sewing machine. And with her earnings, she hopes to help her three school-going children continue their education. Ladi Devi wants her girls to become doctors. She doesn't understand what she will do for the education of these children. While she dreams big for her kids, she knows it is an uphill task and is hence hoping for some financial assistance from the government.
After completing his BSc, Ashish Singh is cultivating paddy on about one and a half bighas of land (1 bigha is equal to 0.6 acres). With the money he earns from the field, he manages the expenses of his two sisters and himself. Ashish's father, Durg Vikas Singh, a resident of Fursatganj in Amethi district, died in 2017. Post his demise, Ashish's mother took up farming in the land with the help of her children. To make ends meet, she also worked as a labourer in other people's farms. Sadly, she too passed away on April 16, after she contracted the coronavirus.
Ashish's sister, Vidhi is pursuing her BA degree, and his other sister is in Class 11. The three siblings now face an uncertain future due to the untimely death of their mother. Ashish was doing a certificate course in hardware after completing his graduation when his mother fell ill. She developed a fever, cold, cough, and breathlessness, all symptoms of Covid-19, but she passed away before she could get tested for the virus. Due to this, the family may not be entitled to any compensation given by the government.
While earlier the Supreme Court has issued a notice to the Centre to provide ex gratia compensation of Rs 4 lakh to the family members of those who succumbed to Covid-19, the Central government recently told the Supreme Court that in all cases of death due to Covid, Rs 4 lakh compensation cannot be given to the family members as government sources are limited and this will affect the funds remaining for other health and welfare schemes.
The UP Chief Minister Bal Seva Yojana is a scheme that promises to help children affected by the pandemic. Under the scheme, a district-level task force has been constituted in every district, which will make a list and work to link such people with the schemes being run by the government. In addition to this, Rs 4,000 per month will be put in the bank account of the legal guardian of children in the age group of 0 to 10 years on the condition that the child has been registered for formal education in a recognised school. Children can also enroll for free education up to class 12 in Atal Residential Schools and Kasturba Gandhi Residential Schools. A total amount of Rs 12,000 per month will be transferred to the bank account of the legal guardian. This amount will be payable till class 12 or till the age of 18 years.
Under the Mukhyamantri Bal Samman Yojana, the Uttar Pradesh government will provide Rs 1 lakh 1 thousand for the marriage of girls, who have lost either one or both parents to Covid-19, which will be given when she turns 18. In addition, children who are studying in school and college or are getting a vocational education will be provided with a tablet or a laptop.
Under the Palanhar scheme of the Rajasthan government, poor children orphaned due to Covid-19 will get Rs 1,000 per month from the government till the age of 18. Chief Minister's Corona Sahayta Yojana promises a lifetime pension of Rs 1,500 per month to women widowed in the pandemic. Children orphaned due to the pandemic will receive Rs 2,500 per month for education and Rs 5 lakh on completion of 18 years. Till now the officials related to this scheme have not made any contact with Ladi Devi.
While these schemes can be highly beneficial, many have not yet been able to avail the benefits. Safeena Husain, the founder of Educate Girls, said, "The government has been taking quick measures to ensure relief reaches those in need, but we are seeing gaps in awareness around accessing these social and educational support schemes. There are a significant number of illiterate and poor families without key identification documents such as Aadhaar and ration cards, making it harder for them to avail the necessary support."
Despite making multiple rounds of government offices, Ashish and his sisters have not got any help from the government. As there is no guardian at home, Ashish has left his sisters at the home of his maternal uncle, while scouting for a job in these uncertain times.
A bleak future
A recent UNICEF report found that the closure of 1.5 million schools due to the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant lockdowns in 2020 impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools in India. Online education is not an option for all as only one in four children has access to digital devices and Internet connectivity.
Divyanshu Chaturvedi, Chief Operating Officer of DEHAT (Developmental Association for Human Advancement), an NGO that works for child's rights, said that while on one hand, the government has declared Covid-19 a disaster under the Epidemic Act, 1897, on the other hand, the announcement of non-payment of allowance to the family members by the state and central disaster fund of the government will endanger the future of these children.
"Although the step of providing assistance to the families under other projects of the government is commendable, the lack of access to on-ground investigation presents a huge problem in its implementation. Many children or their families do not even know that their mother or father has died from Covid as there is no documentation confirming the ailment. Due to this, the families are not able to prove their eligibility for the registration of these government projects," said Chaturvedi. He further added that the pandemic may push children towards child labour, child marriage, and child trafficking.
Husain explained, "India is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Child and is obligated to take care of orphans. Direct financial assistance is one way, but we will also need to be aggressive in our efforts to identify those orphaned and provide them with a conducive, healthy environment to grow up through robust social protection measures. We must ensure that no kid is left behind, else an entire generation of children will be lost to domestic abuse, child labour, early marriage and illiteracy."