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‘Outreach must for Covid-hit kids’

In an interview with Rakesh Kumar, he shares his thoughts on some crucial matters relating to the pandemic and its fallout for children.

Rakesh Kumar | New Delhi |

As chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR), ANURAG KUNDU is mandated to monitor implementation of the rights of children, commission research studies, inquire into specific complaints/violations of children rights, and advise the Delhi government on policy matters on the issue of early childhood care and development, school education, protection of children from physical, mental or sexual violence, child labour, early marriage, substance abuse, and trafficking.

A computer science engineer by training, Kundu has chaired or has been part of several key Delhi committees on vital issues ranging from education to Covid-induced lockdown. In an interview with RAKESH KUMAR, he shares his thoughts on some crucial matters relating to the pandemic and its fallout for children. Excerpts:

Q. In the national capital the second Covid wave seemed to be like an apocalypse. The havoc it has wreaked on the lives of children across the country is unimaginable. What is your take?
A. Thousands of children have lost one or both parents because of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially during the second surge in April-May 2021. It is nothing short of a national emergency. It isn’t only about the trauma that children experience because of parental loss which manifests in sleeping disorders, anxiety, and loss of appetite or expression but also the potential drop-out from school, and drop in income levels affecting quality of life, both of which are catastrophic for a child.

Q. A large number of kids lost their parents or other family members, which has devastated them in every possible way including emotionally, psychologically and economically. What, in your view, must be done urgently to address this epic crisis?

A. Three things are most crucial: Outreach, financial and educational assistance, and social-emotional support. Nearly 400,000 people have reportedly died because of Covid. There is considerable evidence that this is gross underreporting. Governments must actively establish contact with families using its Covid-19 death database as well as its death certificate issuance database and reach out to them. This approach will help governments quickly identify children who have lost one or both parents. Additionally, SOS helplines and strengthening ChildLine is very crucial to enable people to reach out should they know children in need. Secondly, schemes that provide for financial assistance and educational support are important. Most state governments including Delhi government have announced such schemes already. However, governments need to ensure that least documents are required to avail benefits under the scheme or else these would become yet another way to punish the victim by making them run from pillar to post. Governments need to be liberal and broader about the definition of Covid as far as schemes for children are concerned. The Government of Delhi’s scheme is a good example that other states may follow. There is no income criteria and all deaths within one month of testing Covid positive are covered.
Lastly, governance cannot be reduced to a mere banking transaction. Therefore, robust mechanisms for these families, especially for children, to vent out their anxiety, frustration, pain and suffering is critical. Counselling is important to enable these families to process the grief of their loved one. Schools have a crucial role to play here.

Q. What are your estimates on the number of children who have become orphans or lost either parent in Delhi and the country during the entire Covid pandemic period so far?
A. Nearly 10-12 per cent of the deaths are of individuals less than 50 years old, an age benchmark where the children of the deceased are likely to be less than 18 years old. This points to nearly 5,000 children losing either parent in Delhi. Using the same logic, one can estimate the number of children losing either parent at about 80,000+. But we understand that these are grossly underreported. Several people did not get themselves tested or deaths went unreported as Covid death. So actual numbers could be much higher. DCPCR has been able to trace 70 children who lost both parents in Delhi, NCPCR reports 3,500 children having turned orphan in the whole country. I am sure many children have not been traced, and I sincerely hope they are. Identification is the first step to providing support.

Q. The Delhi government has announced it will provide free education and Rs 2500 per month for kids orphaned by the pandemic. For them the Centre has also declared a scheme involving free education and a Rs 10 lakh corpus fund when any such orphan turns 18. Do you think these are sufficient measures for these children?
A. No government assistance can replace the love, affection, and security that parents provide to their children. The financial assistance can at best provide to cover the loss of income that parental loss causes. To that extent, the Government of Delhi has provided Rs. 50,000 as one time assistance and Rs. 2500 per family (per child in case of orphans). This is a very good beginning. How we keep these children in schools, and how schools provide them the needed social and emotional support are important.

Q. What is the DCPCR’s stand on the issue of adoption of kids orphaned by Covid. What measures must be taken to ensure their safe and secure adoption?
A. Adoption is a beautiful concept. It provides the children the sense of security and love of the parents, and the parents a new centre for their world. I hope that more and more people come forward to adopt children. However, it is critical that the adoption happens through the prescribed legal mechanism only. All those interested in adoption must register themselves on the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA)’s website and not believe the social media posts offering children for adoption. Such posts are illegal, and must be immediately reported. It is also the time to reflect and review the adoption rules and processes. It must be a process to evaluate the credentials of prospective parent(s), and prepare them for the children coming to their home. However, the process can sometimes be frustrating. For example, nearly 4,000 adoption requests have been pending since 2016 and 2017. Nearly 8,000 have been pending since 2018. This can be a frustrating experience for parents excited to adopt children. This is also injustice to the children who have to wait for such long time before they can find the comfort and love of a family.

Q. In the pandemic fallout millions of underprivileged and marginalised children are believed to have dropped out of their schools for financial and other reasons including the digital divide thrown up by the prevalent online education system. What needs to be done to get these kids back to schools?
A. Three things: Let the schools and the teachers reach out to these children through phone and home visits. Teachers whom the children love and admire are best suited to assuage the pain the children are experiencing because of parental loss. Secondly, the school community and the people at large need to come forward to support these children through fee waiver, digital devices, and all other means. Schools have been innovating and need to continue to innovate means of ensuring learning without heavy reliance on laptops/computers. Also, attendance of these children is the first and foremost predictor of potential drop-out and difficulty in their lives and schools need to be vigilant to their attendance.

Lastly, financial assistance schemes of the governments may prove crucial in retention of these children in schools.